In a call for reform and protest of poor living conditions, thousands of prisoners throughout the country refused to eat or work from Aug. 21 to Sep. 9 in this year’s National Prison Strike.
Protests have been occurring in different forms throughout the country. Brianna Peril, founding member of the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee (IWOC), explained that prisoners in South Central Correctional Center located in Licking, Mo., chained themselves to a bench in a crowded central walkway to protest institutional segregation and poor living conditions.
“It’s basically a sit-in and the administrative segregation can’t work while the benches are full,” Peril said. “[The] cleanliness is horrendous there; absolute filth and slime and bugs. […] The prisoners are asking for cleaning products but even those are being denied.”
The strike was organized by the IWOC in response to a deadly riot at the Lee Correctional Institute in South Carolina Apr. 15. During the riot seven inmates were killed and at least 17 others required medical attention, yet reports indicated no correctional officers intervened or tended to the injured.
Prison violence is nothing new in the U.S., though this riot was one of the most deadly in recent national history. In response to this violence, IWOC organizers accelerated the timeline of the planned national strike. The new start date was set on the anniversary of the day California prison guards shot Black Panther Party member George Jackson in 1971.
According to Peril, inmates in at least 32 prisons participated in the strike. However, due to restrictions imposed by guards, the IWOC faced difficulty communicating with those incarcerated throughout the strike period.
“It’s been hard to communicate, the guards don’t understand non-violent resistance, the system doesn’t understand non-violent protest,” said Peril. “When people refuse to eat or refuse to work it is treated as a riot, as violent resistance […] the entire prison goes on lockdown and no one can communicate with their friends or loved ones.”
Nationally, the strike was scheduled to end Sep. 9, the anniversary of the 1971 Attica prison uprising, though protests may be extended in some institutions.
The IWOC declared 10 demands for the strike, including increased funding in state prisons, voting rights for the incarcerated and the recall of The Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA) and The Truth in Sentencing and Sentencing Reform Act (TIS).
PLRA was passed by Congress in 1995 and restricts the circumstances under which prisoners can pursue legal action. However, the policy’s language created a system in which institutions enforce the legal rights of prisoners without a strong degree of general regulation. Consequently, an inmate’s opportunity to seek an appeal of their sentence is largely dictated by the rules of the institution to which they are assigned.
Last amended in 1996, TIS was created to address a disparity between sentences delivered in court and time served by inmates in prison. As an incentive for institutions to reduce the number of prisoners released on parole before their sentence had officially ended, the government began offering monetary grants to state institutions to ensure prisoners served a minimum of 85 percent of their sentence. Hence, prison owners are now financially motivated to reduce rehabilitation efforts and keep inmates behind bars for longer.
These two acts reduce the chances of prisons releasing inmates and of offering rehabilitation services, yet prisoners still have certain rights while incarcerated. These rights can be summarized in eight distinct bullet points, which include the right to be free from sexual crimes, the right to humane facilities and conditions and the right to appropriate mental health care.
While these rights seem to provide only the barest of protections for individuals incarcerated, several investigations have revealed that even these conditions are not being upheld in U.S. prisons.
The 2018 National Prison Strike was held to create greater awareness of these topics and increase advocacy for prison reform.
Methods of the strike were strategic – prisoners striked by refusing to work because the IWOC identified prison labor as a key contributor to poor conditions for inmates.
An initial press release for the strike distributed by Jailhouse Lawyers Speak, a group of inmates educated in legal practice and affiliated with IWOC, referred to prison labor as “modern day slavery” and asserted “all persons imprisoned in any place of detention under United States jurisdiction must be paid the prevailing wage in their state or territory for their labor.”
William Jewell College student Robert Hemphill, senior English major and secretary of the student organization Young Democratic Socialists (YDS), witnessed the reality of prison labor first-hand.
“I was a beneficiary of the prison system, my parents both worked for the federal prison system,” said Hemphill. “I grew up on a reservation on the edge of the prison […] we would get mulch put down on our yard by inmates, we would get our lawn mowed by inmates, they even had events for prison families that the inmates would do all of the labor for.”
Hemphill is referring to Lewisberg Federal Penitentiary – a high-security prison known for housing the “worst of the worst.”
A group broadly against capitalism, Jewell’s YDS has taken a particular interest in this year’s prison strike.
“You can be pro-capitalism, but you cannot deny that, in its current state, it relies on slave labor [in the U.S.],” said Hemphill. “Everything about our modern economic system, our modern world, relies on taking a large swath of the population, stripping them of their rights, education and restorative opportunities then putting them into prisons. […] A labor class is being created in the U.S.”
Prison labor is legally required in the U.S. and it has become a billion dollar industry, with prisoners producing everything from mattresses to road signs, spectacles to body armour for government agencies. While the sale of these products brings in billions of dollars in revenue annually, prisoners are paid as little as 0.12 cents to 0.40 cents an hour for their work.
Advocacy groups have long boycotted privately owned prisons, several of which reportedly engage in illegitimate cost-cutting measures such as hiring under-trained staff or almost entirely replacing guards with CCTV cameras.
Yet, only recently has it been made public that the public prison system in the U.S. contributed to the development of the new prison-industrial era as much as private institutions. In fact, since 1979, the state-run Federal Prison Industries have been outsourcing prison laborers to private industries under the name “UNICOR.”
Marketing itself as a “federal government program that truly ‘works’ in every sense of the word, while providing the added benefit of changing lives,” UNICOR allows private companies to contract with prisons in order to hire inmates located in “factories with fences” to work as laborers for a fraction the cost of minimum wage.
UNICOR appeals to private companies by offering an extensive catalogue of produceable goods and “a readily available workforce in low cost manufacturing facilities” to “more competitively” price final products.
While such treatment within private prisons can be reported to legal officials and handled in the appropriate courts, programs that operate in state-run prisons, like UNICOR, are regulated directly by Congress.
These practices are legal under the grounds of the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which states that in the nation and its territories, slavery and involuntary servitude is illegal “except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.”
Photo courtesy of kitoconnell.com.