Incarcerated Workers Demand Better Conditions in Nationwide Strike

(Alex Milan Tracy/Sipa via AP Images)

Protesters demonstrate against prison slavery on September 9, 2016, in Portland, Oregon.

This past Labor Day gave us ample opportunity to consider workers’ rights and what policies can be implemented to bridge the inequality between workers and their bosses and make working life better. Yet, there’s a group of workers who are generally left out of this conversation: prisoners across the country, and they’ve been on strike the past three weeks to make their demands heard.

Prisoners in more than a dozen states have participated in the strike, which began August 21 and is set to end September 9. The most obvious way of striking—a work stoppage—has not always been possible for prisoners, so some have gone on hunger strikes, raised banners in solidarity, or boycotted the prison store. The strike has been organized by workers both inside and outside of prisons—the coordinating organizations are Jailhouse Lawyers Speak (JLS), a collective of prisoners who provide legal assistance to other inmates, and the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee of the Industrial Workers of the World. Organizers say that the strike came in response to the inmate deaths at Lee Correctional Institution in South Carolina this past April, where seven inmates were killed and 22 more were injured. The prison says it was a gang fight. Inmates at that prison say the gang fight happened because corrections officers housed rival gangs in the same dormitory and that corrections officers did not adequately respond to violence that went on for hours.

One of the goals of the strike is to abolish what they (and others) term prison slave labor, as prisoners are not subject to traditional minimum-wage laws. Some prison workers are paid pennies per hour; some are paid nothing at all. The subject of prison slavery has received nationwide attention recently, as wildfires raged across the west and prisoners were recruited to the fast-moving fire lines to fight the flames for a pittance. Even youth prisoners have fought fires.

Ending compelled and low- (or no-)paid labor is not the prisoners’ only demand. Their list of ten demands also includes giving all prisoners the right to vote (currently only inmates in Maine and Vermont can vote from behind bars). Prisoners also call for restoring Pell Grants for prisoners, which were eliminated in the 1994 crime bill (the Obama administration implemented a limited pilot program, “Second Chance Pell Grants,” for 12,000 inmates). They also advocate for rescinding the Prison Litigation Reform Act (which makes it difficult for prisoners to file federal lawsuits), ending sentences without parole to allow for rehabilitation, as well as improving the conditions of prisons to “recognize the humanity of imprisoned men and women.”

It’s difficult to gauge exactly how many prisoners in how many states have engaged in the strike, because corrections officers tend to downplay or outright deny protests even when they occur. Even outside organizers of the strike may not be able to get information about strikes immediately. “Within prisons, what we see and are able to report on the outside is always only the tip of the iceberg. For every documented form of protest that we are able to share with you, we know there are many others that aren't even on our radar yet,” nationwide strike organizers wrote in a press release last week.

Still, organizers have confirmed protests (whether related to the official strike or not) in California, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Kentucky, Maryland, Michigan, New Mexico, North Carolina, Ohio, South Carolina, Texas, Virginia, and Washington, as well as Nova Scotia.

Prisoners—like all workers—face retaliation for striking. Such retaliatory methods may include putting prisoners in solitary confinement, limiting their visits and other outside communication, or sometimes even transferring them to a different prison. Prisoners may also be denied necessities like toiletries, according to Amani Sawari, a JLS spokesperson. “It’s much harder for prisoners to attempt to defend their rights as workers because of the basic privileges like showers, edible food, clean clothes and [even] toilet paper can be taken away in retaliation,” said Sawari in an interview with The Guardian.

But it’s possible that labor law can hold some answers to the question of how to protect incarcerated workers. Though the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) clearly needs wholesale reforms to strengthen its worker protections, the current law may “provide one avenue for remedying some of the grievances of incarcerated workers,” wrote Kara Goad, Cornell Law graduate, in the Cornell Law Review. Goad argued that the National Labor Relations Board’s decision declaring that graduate student workers at Columbia University are employees, and therefore can unionize, provides a strong case that prisoners are also employees who can unionize. “[T]he Board’s established approach to determining if an employment relationship is present—looking to the presence of employer control and payment of compensation—accommodates many incarcerated workers,” she wrote.

It’s these sorts of legal fixes that the strike organizers are ultimately looking toward. Prisoner organizers “appreciate the ability of protest action to bring prison issues into the national consciousness, but the demands will not be met without legislative action to change related policies,” strike organizers wrote in a statement.

This past year, thousands of teachers went on strike and demanded better pay and working conditions. For the most part, their communities—and the country—responded in support. Many pointed to how teachers have a unique role in shaping children’s futures, and thus deserve adequate wages and benefits.

Very true. But what about those people who are less sympathetic in the public imagination? Even the 13th Amendment specifically excludes prisoners from protections against slavery.

“We are anti-slavery,” said inmate Ronald Brooks in a Facebook Live video recorded at Louisiana State Penitentiary (nicknamed “Angola”) this June to describe his organizing work for the strike, “and [we] are organizing to transform our ghettos into communities, and our jails and prisons into places of human redemption, healing, higher learning, that enable us to be productive in our communities and wherever our feet touch the land.”

Brooks was then transferred to a different prison 250 miles away, according to his family. Brooks’s mother told The Guardian that the warden told her that “he immediately had Ronald transferred out as a punishment and a deterrent.”

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