As wildfires rage across California, some of the people risking their lives to fight them are paid only a few dollars a day. They’re part of a 2.3 million-strong underclass of American employees making sweatshop wages: incarcerated workers.
Slave wages are just one of the many reasons why incarcerated people around the U.S. on strike. The strike was organized in response to deadly violence at Lee Correctional Institution in South Carolina earlier this year, a result of the prison’s abysmal living conditions.
Organizers have a list of 10 demands, which include the need for prompt improvement of prison conditions and policies.
They also call for the “immediate end to prison slavery,” which is legal thanks to a constitutional loophole. The 13th Amendment famously outlaws slavery — except, less famously, “as a punishment for a crime.”
That’s how the Prison Industry Enhancement Certification Program was created in 1970. In theory, the program was meant to establish work opportunities for incarcerated people so that they could both earn money and develop skills, increasing their chances of getting a good job upon release.
However, this is hardly the case. These work programs teach few relevant skills and pay less than $1 an hour on average, if they pay at all.
Earned income is essential for folks on the inside because it allows them to buy necessities not provided by the prison, like soap, calling cards, and tampons. Fair wages during incarceration are doubly important due to the stark barriers to employment upon release.
There’s an economic argument in addition to the moral one. In 2000, five economists conducted a study on the impact of prison labor and found that it benefits the overall economy — if incarcerated workers are paid more, given the opportunity to unionize, and have access to workers’ compensation.
While workers lose out, companies are turning a profit off the work of incarcerated people.
For-profit corporations like Geo Group and Core Civic — formerly the Corrections Corporation of America — benefit from incarceration in general and prison slavery specifically. Over the years, many corporations — including Victoria’s Secret, Starbucks, Microsoft, Dell, Boeing, and Whole Foods — have also profited by paying incarcerated people substandard wages to do everything from sewing garments to producing plane parts.
Going on strike is the best way for incarcerated folks to contest the inequality they face and leverage what little political power they have.
“Frankly, it’s the only way to challenge their slave status,” Paul Wright, editor of Prison News, told me. Since there’s no legal or judicial way to challenge their institutionalized slavery through the courts, the only option available for incarcerated workers is to withhold their labor.
National strikes also draw attention to an issue where media is generally silent.
“Even in cases like the massacre that occurred in Lee County earlier this year, prisoners were not given space to respond or share their experiences with the press,” Amani Sawari, an outside organizer for Jailhouse Lawyers Speak, explained to me. “It wasn’t until the call for the strike that prisoners were beginning to receive media attention directly.”
While this strike is powerful for all incarcerated folks, it’s an especially important for those who identify as LGBTQ. They experience higher rates of incarceration than the general population and are more likely to experience violence there — or be put into solitary confinement (often as the only way to “protect” them).
Organizers are asking people to support the strike by educating themselves on the conditions in prisons and the demands put forth by incarcerated people. People can spread the word by posting stickers and flyers, using the hashtag #PrisonStrike on social media, or organizing call-in campaigns and solidarity demonstrations. More info: https://incarceratedworkers.org.
Fizz Perkal is a Next Leader at the Institute for Policy Studies. An earlier version of this piece appeared at Inequality.org. Distributed by OtherWords.org.
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