You wouldn’t know it from the mainstream press, but the largest prison strike in the history of the United States is currently underway.
According to organizers, no fewer than 29 prisons located in a dozen states have undertaken strikes, involving as many as 24,000 prisoners.
At the core of the issue is the very concept of slavery, which was outlawed by the 13th Amendment. Yet the change to the constitution included a provision that permits the practice for those convicted of a crime. Private businesses – working in partnership with correctional facilities – can effectively receive free labor through prisoner-laborers.
Businesses including AT&T, Chevron, GEICO, McDonald’s, Bank of America, Verizon, and Walmart are all believed to make use of under-compensated prison labor in some capacity.
Ostensibly for training or socialization, this practice amounts to severe exploitation.
According to one striking inmate at the Perry Correctional Institution located in Pelzer, South Carolina, prisoner-laborers housed in Perry earn less than one dollar per hour. Some states – such as Georgia, Texas, and Arkansas – do not even pay inmates at all. In the popular imagination of the United States, this gross under compensation is – indeed – associated with slavery, thought to be relegated to remote corners of the world.
But it’s happening here, at prisons across the United States. And prisoners are protesting their conditions through work stoppages and hunger strikes.
Organized in part by the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee – an arm of the Industrial Workers of the World – the direct actions occurring across the nation correspond to the 40th anniversary of the Attica uprising, where inmates rebelled against sub-human living conditions. While the movement at Attica raised the profile of prisoner rights, it came at a cost – 43 people died during the turmoil
Today, the protests have yet to be marred by violence, and are instead defined by the use of labor tactics to highlight the abuse of power that has enabled private companies to take advantage of prisoners for private profit.