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America’s prisoners are going on strike in at least 17 states

Incarcerated Americans are often forced to work for cents an hour. So they’re launching what could be their biggest protest ever.

An inmate firefighter is deployed from a minimum-security prison on September 2017.
An inmate firefighter is deployed from a minimum-security prison on September 2017.
David McNew/AFP via Getty Images

America’s prisoners are going on strike.

The demonstrations are planned to take place from August 21 to September 9, which marks the anniversary of the bloody uprising at the Attica Correctional Facility in New York. During this time, inmates across the US plan to refuse to work and, in some cases, refuse to eat to draw attention to poor prison conditions and what many view as exploitative labor practices in American correctional facilities.

“Prisoners want to be valued as contributors to our society,” Amani Sawari, a spokesperson for the protests, told me. “Every single field and industry is affected on some level by prisons, from our license plates to the fast food that we eat to the stores that we shop at. So we really need to recognize how we are supporting the prison industrial complex through the dollars that we spend.”

Prison labor issues recently received attention in California, where inmates have been voluntarily recruited to fight the state’s record wildfires — for the paltry pay of just $1 an hour plus $2 per day. But the practice of using prison inmates for cheap or free labor is fairly widespread in the US, due to an exemption in the 13th Amendment, which abolished chattel slavery but allows involuntary servitude as part of a punishment for a crime.

For Sawari and the inmates participating in the protests, the sometimes forced labor and poor pay is effectively “modern slavery.” That, along with poor prison conditions that inmates blame for a deadly South Carolina prison riot earlier this year, have led to protests.

For prisons, though, fixing the problems raised by the demonstrations will require money — something that cash-strapped state governments may not be willing to put up. That raises real questions about whether the inmates’ demands can or will be heard.

The demonstrations come two years after what was then the largest prison strike in US history, with protests breaking out in at least 12 states in 2016. The new demonstrations could end up even larger than those previous protests.

Protests are planned in at least 17 states

There’s no hard estimate for how many inmates and prisons are taking part in the protests, as organizers continue to recruit more and more inmates and word of mouth spreads. But demonstrations are expected across at least 17 states.

The inmates will take part in work strikes, hunger strikes, and sit-ins. They are also calling for boycotts against agencies and companies that benefit from prisons and prison labor.

“The main leverage that an inmate has is their own body,” Sawari said. “If they choose not to go to work and just sit in in the main area or the eating area, and all the prisoners choose to sit there and not go to the kitchen for lunchtime or dinnertime, if they choose not to clean or do the yardwork, this is the leverage that they have. Prisons cannot run without prisoners’ work.”

While 2016’s protests were largely planned for just September 9 (then the 45th anniversary of the Attica uprising), they ended up taking part over weeks or months as prison officials tried to tamp down the demonstrations and mitigate the effects of the protests. This year, the protests are spread out over three weeks to make it more difficult for prison officials to crack down.

The inmates have outlined 10 national demands. They include “immediate improvements to the conditions of prisons” and “an immediate end to prison slavery.” They also target federal laws that boosted mass incarceration and have made it harder for inmates to sue officials for potential rights violations. And they call for an end to racial disparities in the criminal justice system and an increase to rehabilitation programs in prisons.

The demands are on top of specific local and regional asks that prisoners are making. For example, Sawari said, in South Carolina they’re also focused on getting prisoners the right to vote — and, of course, improving conditions in the state that helped inspire this year’s protests.

The strikes are in part a response to South Carolina’s recent prison riots

One reason for this year’s demonstrations is the prison riot at Lee Correctional Institution in April, which was described as a “mass casualty” event by state officials.

“After that violent incident happened, South Carolina prisoners and the jailhouse lawyers group out of Lee County came out with the strike demands and really wanted to do something to draw attention to the dehumanizing environment of prisons in general,” Sawari said.

In total, seven inmates were killed and at least 17 were seriously injured, according to the Associated Press. An inmate told the AP that bodies were “literally stacked on top of each other,” claiming that prison guards did little to stop the violence between inmates. Most of the fatal injuries appeared to be a result of stabbing or slashing, although some inmates may have been beaten to death. No prison guards were hurt.

The riot was the worst in a US prison in a quarter-century, according to the AP.

Based on reports following the riot, it seems some of the major causes, besides personal and potentially gang-related disputes, were poor prison conditions and understaffing — which meant there weren’t enough guards to stop the fighting.

This appears to be part of a growing problem. An investigation by John Monk for the State, a South Carolina newspaper, found that the number of inmates killed in the state’s prisons “more than doubled in 2017 from the year before and quadrupled from two years ago.”

John Bacon and Tim Smith at USA Today in April reported on other incidents at Lee Correctional:

The prison, which opened 25 years ago and holds about 1,700 of some of South Carolina’s most violent offenders, is no stranger to violence. Three weeks ago, inmates overpowered a guard, holding him hostage and taking control of part of a dorm for about 90 minutes. The guard was released uninjured.

In February, one inmate fatally stabbed another. …

The prison is about 50 miles east of Columbia. The state capital is home to the Kirkland Correctional Institution, where four inmates were fatally strangled a year ago. One of the two inmates accused of the crime said he killed them so he would be moved to death row.

Violence is generally a big problem in US prisons. According to a 2009 study published in the Journal of Correctional Health Care, about 21 percent of male prison inmates during a six-month period are physically assaulted, and between 2 and 5 percent are sexually assaulted.

But the problem appears to be particularly acute in South Carolina facilities in recent years. One potential reason: understaffing. Lee County Coroner Larry Logan told the AP that most South Carolina prisons have struggled to find enough workers, indicating that understaffing is making it difficult to keep these places under control. South Carolina Department of Corrections Director Bryan Stirling previously acknowledged the understaffing problem — and the dangers it causes — as well.

Sawari cited poor conditions in the prison as another cause of the riots. “Prisoners were placed in some really aggravated conditions,” she said. “They were placed on lockdown all day. They weren’t allowed to eat or use the bathroom. They were placed in units with rival gang members. And then their lockers were taken away, so they didn’t have any safe place to put their personal belongings, which really aggravated and caused tensions among prisoners — to the point where fights broke out, inevitably.”

For the state, a big problem is costs. Hiring more guards — and paying guards more to make the job more attractive to more people — costs money. So does improving prison conditions in general. All of that is cash that could be spent elsewhere.

For inmates, the situation poses a question: If South Carolina can’t properly staff its prisons and keep prisoners in safe, humane conditions, should so many people be locked up in the first place?

A big issue: prison labor exploitation

If there’s one issue inmate protesters are united on, it’s prison labor. In many states, prisoners are forced to work for cents an hour or even for free. This is allowed after the abolishment of slavery through the 13th Amendment of the US Constitution, which banned slavery and involuntary servitude “except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.”

Hundreds of thousands of inmates across the US have jobs — not just firefighting, but also more typical jobs like kitchen work, cleaning, and GED tutoring. Sometimes the jobs will take inmates outside of prison, although more frequently they merely mimic real-world jobs or involve menial chores that need to be done around the prison. The average pay in state prisons is 20 cents an hour, according to the Marshall Project.

During the 2016 prison strikes, protesters characterized the practice as modern slavery. And with black people disproportionately likely to be incarcerated, there are racial disparities in this often forced, low-paid labor.

The 2018 protesters are taking a similar approach.

“Prison slavery exists,” Sawari argued. “The 13th Amendment didn’t abolish slavery. It wrote slavery into the Constitution. There’s a general knowledge that the 13th Amendment abolished slavery, but if you read it, there’s an exception clause in the abolishing of it. That’s really contradictory — that something would be abolished and there would be an exception to that.”

She pointed to companies that have taken advantage of prison labor in the past, including Victoria’s Secret and Starbucks — arguing they need to be called out for what amounts to, in some inmates’ view, exploitation.

Prison officials and other advocates argue, however, that prison labor can help inmates gain much-needed real-world working experience. Some research has backed this up: A study of federal prisoners found inmates who took part in UNICOR, the federal prison work program, were 24 percent less likely to reoffend and 14 percent more likely to be employed a year after their release. And a study of a Florida program found significant increases in employment after release, but no changes in inmates’ likelihood to reoffend.

These studies aren’t definitive proof, because they have serious selection bias issues. It’s difficult to know whether the inmates participating in prison labor programs are those who are already less likely to reoffend and more likely to get and keep a job after prison — since they’re able and, in some cases, volunteering to work while they’re incarcerated. Some studies try to control for this, but it can never be fully ruled out.

There’s also a moral argument against prison labor as it’s done today: Even if prison work helps some inmates, that doesn’t justify paying prisoners pennies or nothing at all. Under this view, if the prison work programs are beneficial, spending on them should be increased so everyone can participate and get more pay for their work.

Of course, these are also people in prison — a place they are in as punishment for their crimes. So why do they deserve to be paid a higher wage? Sawari countered that these inmates are still often the primary breadwinners for their families and expected to meet some financial obligations even before their release.

“Prisoners do like having the opportunity to earn, because they do have to support themselves financially in a lot of ways,” Sawari said. “Prisoners have to provide for their health care, their dental care. They have to buy food if they want to eat outside the three times a day most prisons serve. … They have to buy clothes like jackets and boots, hygiene products, cosmetics, books, study materials, paper, tape, scissors. Any little thing they need, they have to buy that. So they want to be able to.”

Prison officials say they couldn’t afford to pay inmates more. They point out that there are many extra costs tied to prison labor — such as the chance of lockdowns, security needs, and the costs of inmates’ housing, food, and health care. As California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation spokesperson Jeffrey Callison told me, “The per capita cost of one inmate in our prison system now exceeds $80,000.” Those are expenses employers in the free world don’t typically have to carry.

But for many inmates, the poor pay still feels unfair. So they’re protesting for three weeks.