Prisoners all over the US are striking for an end to prison slavery’
US prisoners strike against ‘slavery’: What work do inmates do inside prison?
What do you call a worker who toils for no pay? Prisoners across over 20 states gave their answer on Friday with a coordinated strike, joining “a call to end slavery.” The work stoppage, staged on the anniversary of the Attica prison uprising of 1971, marks one of the largest attempted prison strikes in decades.
“Slavery is alive and well in the prison system, but by the end of this year, it won’t be anymore,” reads the statement by the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee (IWOC), the group that organized and announced the strike. “This call goes directly to the slaves themselves.”
Most people can envision America’s 2 million-plus inmates mopping floors or scrubbing toilets, but many may not realize that the country’s prison population is a source of cheap and, in states like Texas, free labor.
As state budgets shrink, prisons have fired up fresh work programs inside their walls to beef up the supply of cheap and free workers. Prisoners repair public plumbing, clean up roadkill on highways, and even manage and oversee public spaces such as graveyards.
“Think about how much it costs to incarcerate someone,” said Republican Sen. John Ensign in 2011, advocating for more of these programs. “Do we want them just sitting in prison, lifting weights, becoming violent and thinking about the next crime? Or do we want them having a little purpose in life and learning a skill?”
But the true scope of prison labor goes beyond personal development and public works: It’s good business. Prisoners scrub products for Wal-Mart, package coffee for Starbucks, sew clothes for Victoria’s Secret, and man call centers for AT&T.
These corporations cut deals with prisons, both private and public, which gives them access to a labor force that has no choice but to build, stitch and sweat at rates like 20 cents an hour. The companies and states save big by “outsourcing” work to incarcerated workers without having to worry about, say, paying them minimum wage.
“At Holman prison, the industry we have there is the state tag plant, which produces license plates for the state, and also a sewing factory,” said Robert Horton, Public Information Manager for the Alabama Department of Corrections. Horton added that Friday operations had not been interrupted by the strike campaign.
Prisoners, of course, are not permitted to unionize, as labor law does not consider them employees of their captors. That’s something the IWOC is looking to change, recruiting prisoners through clandestine and contraband methods to join up with a new kind of guild, free of union dues considering their constituents’ circumstances.
The IWOC calls for prisoners of the world to unite: “You cannot change this situation through a grievance process that doesn’t work… or through courts that are clearly against you… or through petitions to lawmakers who don’t care about you because you don’t vote… or through hungerstrikes against prison officials who want you to starve… or through letters to newspapers who have ignored this situation for decades…”
“We know what will happen if you DON’T join the Industrial Workers of the World,” the group says. “Let’s see what happens when you DO.”