Strikers say meager wages and sentencing laws that target people of color amount to modern day slavery.
Starting today (August 21), incarcerated people across the country will refuse to report to assigned jobs. Some will stage peaceful sit-ins. Others will embark on hunger strikes and other forms of dissent designed to improve conditions and reduce harm in American prisons.
The Nationwide Prison Strike for comprehensive reform will run through September 9, the 47th anniversary of the prison uprising at Attica Correctional Facility where state police officers killed 43 people and ushered in the modern incarcerated people’s rights movement.
They include an immediate end to “prison slavery,” so that the incarcerated are paid a prevailing wage for their labor. Demands also include an end to “racial overcharging,” IWOC’s name for sentencing laws and parole denials that unfairly target African Americans and other people of color, the restoration of voting rights and universal access to education and rehabilitation.
“Prison officials have been locking down communications for months, so it’s been hard to get an exact idea of where actions will be happening,” Will Andrews, an IWOCorganizer, told Colorlines. “We will be calling facilities over the coming days to see which ones have locked down, which is usually a good indicator of strike activity there.”
The strike comes several months after seven incarcerated men were killed at the Lee Correctional Institution in Bishopville, South Carolina. The revolt, the deadliest in the United States in nearly a quarter century, lasted seven hours before guards regained control of the penitentiary.
“It’s a tinder box,” J. Edward Bell, an attorney who represents hundreds of incarcerated people in South Carolina, told the Los Angeles Times, referring to Lee Correctional Institution. “We have a hugely overpopulated prison and an understaffed prison system.”
On average, incarcerated workers in the U.S. earned just 86 cents daily in 2017 for prison jobs, down from 93 cents in 2001, according to a study from nonprofit think tank Prison Policy Initiative. Incarcerated people assigned to work for state-owned businesses earn between 33 cents and $1.41 per hour, according to the study. Prison strike organizers say these wages amount to modern day slavery.
Meager wages were a catalyst for nationwide prison strikes in 2016, when incarcerated people in nearly 50 prisons across 22 states staged protests. Although some prison work programs have been shown to reduce recidivism rates, strikers pointed out that all prisoners are required to work if medically fit, and that in some states workers are not paid at all. Thirty-one of those facilities experienced lock-downs or a full strike for at least 24 hours.
The courageous people who are bringing focused attention to America’s system of mass incarceration through the Nationwide Prison Strike deserve our admiration. The ACLU supports the demands of the Nationwide Prison Strike, including the demand for a right to vote. Our country is stronger when people most marginalized and directly impacted by unjust policies raise their voices in protest and demand a different future.
“Prisons in America are a warzone,” Jailhouse Lawyers Speak, a supporter of the 2018 strikes, said in a statement. “Every day prisoners are harmed due to conditions of confinement. For some of us it’s as if we are already dead. So what do we have to lose?”