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We’re in the midst of the biggest prison strike in US history

Prison officials have made it hard to get this information to the public. But it’s a big deal.

A California prison inmate sits on his bunk bed. Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

For the past couple of months, prison inmates across the country have been striking and protesting, in what organizers have called the largest prison strike in US history.

The little-known protests were organized around September 9 in commemoration of the 45th anniversary of the bloody uprising at the Attica Correctional Facility in New York. But the demonstrations have continued in potentially dozens of states since then, and there’s talk of more concerted protests beginning anew later in October.

The demonstrations have broadly targeted dismal prison conditions. But they have generally focused on a few specific issues — particularly prison labor practices in both public and private prisons that can force inmates to take jobs for little to no pay, which inmates have characterized as modern slavery.

“What you see is a lot of people who are being incarcerated sort of recognizing the broader social, political, and historical context in which they are positioned,” said Clint Smith, a doctoral candidate in Harvard focused on incarceration issues. “And [they are] fundamentally rejecting the idea that they are devoid of any agency, that they are not able to push back and protest against the conditions in which they live.”

He added, “So often in this broader conversation about mass incarceration that’s been happening more so in the last four, five, or six years, you rarely see people who are incarcerated or formerly incarcerated at the forefront of that conversation. And many people in prison are recognizing that their voices are being silenced — not only in the general population but also in the conversation around them.”

The protests, however, have been varied in their approach. So far, they have taken place in as many as 50 prisons in at least 12 states, involving at least 24,000 people in these facilities. As John Washington explained for the Nation, the hard numbers are hard to come by, in large part because prisons are so secretive. But we do have some details of what’s going on.

Protests have broken out in at least 12 states

A National Park Service ranger walks down the main cell block of Alcatraz Island. Robyn Beck/AFP via Getty Images

So far, the protests have taken a few forms. There have been work stoppages in which inmates refuse to take part in prison labor. There have also been hunger strikes, which mostly came about among inmates who don’t have jobs in prison. In some cases, there have also been bouts of violence — in which inmates take over parts of the prison and destroy property.

Here are some of the bigger protests, based on the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee’s tracker, the Nation’s breakdown, and other news reports:

  • Alabama: Starting on September 9, inmates went on strike as part of the Free Alabama Movement, an advocacy group for prisoners. Some reports suggested that prison guards also joined the strikes to speak out against unsafe conditions, but higher-ups deny it. Perhaps in response, the US Department of Justice on October 6 announced that it will investigate Alabama’s prisons for men.
  • California: At least 100 inmates in Merced County Jail went on a hunger strike starting on September 9, with inmates in Santa Clara County Jail planning to join on October 1.
  • Florida: Hundreds of inmates rose up in at least five state prisons in early September, refusing orders while taking over dorms and cellblocks. The Miami Herald has found deplorable conditions in Florida prisons for years: understaffing, violence, and lack of air conditioning in scorching hot weather.
  • Michigan: Inmates began striking in Kinross Correctional Facility on September 9. But after discussing their demands with the warden, a tactical team used guns, rifles, tear gas, and shields to subdue and handcuff around 150 inmates, leaving them in the rain for five to six hours. Prison officials told the Detroit Free Press that inmates started a fire and damaged several buildings during the demonstrations.
  • South Carolina: There were several weeks of work stoppages in state facilities. After one inmate died in the McCormick Correctional Institution, some inmates also rose up in what one prisoner described to the Nation as an “active rebellion.”
  • Texas: Although prison officials have denied strike activity, multiple prisons in Texas have reportedly gone on lockdown in the past few months due to inmates refusing to work.
  • Wisconsin: Before September 9, prisoners were already on hunger strike in protest of solitary confinement. Some inmates were force-fed through a nasal tube throughout the protests, but the strikes were reportedly still going on as of September 23.

There have been protests in other facilities within these seven states and prisons in up to 17 other states. But the details are scarce, because prison officials refuse to provide them — after all, it’s in their interest to make it seem like their prisons are run with few or no problems.

And more protests are likely coming: Some inmates plan to organize another round of renewed protests October 15 to 22.

According to Emma Grey Ellis at Wired, inmates have organized, with help from family, friends, and outside groups like the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee, using contraband cellphones and social media. Inmates aren’t technically supposed to have access to these, but they have long managed to smuggle the necessary devices into prisons. And now they’ve used them to put together protests.

The protests are about broad criminal justice issues

So what’s connected this scattered network of prisoners? Organizers and inmates have given purposely broad answers when asked about their goals, so prisoners at different facilities can set their own demands as part of the demonstrations.

“Part of the reason we don’t have an [international] list of demands is because it’s not possible for the prisoners to all get together and say what their demands are going to be,” said Azzurra Crispino, media co-chair at the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee. “So the demands do vary from unit to unit and state to state.”

Some have protested the US keeping the world’s largest prison population, which has led to overcrowding and other abuses against the incarcerated population.

Others have taken issue with terrible living conditions — including violence, unhygienic situations, inadequate health care, lack of air conditioning in dangerously hot weather, and scarce, unhealthy food. Some have targeted solitary confinement, when inmates are isolated in tiny cells as punishment or, supposedly, for their own safety — which can lead to such bad mental and physical health consequences that a United Nations report concluded it’s torture after 15 days.

And some have demanded that guards and police stop brutalizing inmates and turning a blind eye to violence among inmates.

Prison labor exploitation is a major rallying point

A prison fence. Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images

If there’s one issue the inmates seem somewhat united on, it’s prison labor. In many states, prisoners are forced to work for literally cents an hour. In Arkansas, Texas, and Georgia, inmates can be forced to work for free. This is explicitly 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.”

Approximately 700,000 inmates have daily jobs, such as 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.

Inmates compare the practice to modern slavery. With black people disproportionately likely to be incarcerated, there are racial disparities in this often forced, low-paid labor. (It of course didn't help that the Virginia Supreme Court said that prisoners are “slaves of the state” in 1871, six years after slavery and involuntary servitude were abolished by the 13th Amendment except as punishment for a crime.)

“Ultimately, the demand is abolishing prisons,” Crispino said. From inmates’ view, “the reason prisons exist is not to keep anyone safe — but because money gets made from prisons. So they’re saying, look, if the reason you have us locked up is because we make you a ton of money, then if we strike and you give us minimum wage, we won’t make you a ton of money anymore. And that will ultimately lead to reform for decarceration and prison abolition.”

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 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, but no changes in inmates’ likelihood to reoffend.

These studies aren’t definitive proof, since 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 another benefit to the work: It gives people something to do. “A lot of inmates have told me, ‘Look, jobs make the time go faster, and we want to be productive,’” Crispino said. “One of the things that’s frustrating about being in prison and especially solitary confinement is the forced idleness.” (To that end, Crispino pointed out, strikes can actually make time in prison more dreadful, but inmates still say the protests are needed to voice discontent about what they see as abuses.)

But even if prison labor gives inmates something to do and improves their chances of reoffending and sustaining employment, there are still moral and ethical questions behind the practice. So the benefits may not justify paying prisoners pennies or nothing at all, but rather make a case for increasing the spending on these programs so everyone can participate and get at least minimum wage for their work.

Prison officials say they couldn’t afford to pay inmates more. They also argue there are other costs that have to be considered that make this labor particularly expensive, such as the chance of lockdowns and costs of security — meaning, they say, that prison labor will never be able to be treated like a regular job in the free world.

Still, for the prisoner, this setup certainly doesn’t feel like a fair deal. So many of them have taken to striking across the US.