Yesterday, prisoners around the US began a strike protesting unpaid, underpaid and forced labor. Maybe. We think.
Led by prisoners in Alabama and Texas, incarcerated activists planned a nationwide labor strike yesterday, with prisoners refusing to report for jobs essential to run the prison, as well as for jobs for companies who contract jobs to prison labor. Scheduled for the 45th anniversary of the Attica Prison uprising, organizers announced that this would be the largest prison protest in US history.
Was it? I don’t know, and I’m not sure anyone does.
It’s hard to tell what’s going on inside US prisons. While prisoners can reach out to reporters using the same channels they can use to contact friends or family members, journalists have very limited rights of access to prisons, and it would be challenging for an intrepid reporter to identify and contact inmates in prisons across a state, for instance, to determine where protests took place. Wardens have a great deal of discretion about answering reporters’ inquiries and can choose not to comment citing security concerns. Reporters who want to know what’s going on inside a prison sometimes resort to extraordinary measures, like becoming a prison guard to gain access. (Shane Bauer’s article on private prison company CCA is excellent, but the technique he used was not a new one – Ted Conover’s 2000 book Newjack is a masterpiece of the genre.)
Because it’s so hard to report from prison – and, frankly, because news consumers haven’t demonstrated much demand for stories about prison conditions – very few media outlets have dedicated prison reporters. One expert estimates that there are fewer than half a dozen dedicated prisons reporters across the US, an insane number given that 2.4m Americans are incarcerated, roughly 1% of the nation’s population.
So what happened yesterday?
Prisoners associated with the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee (IWOC), in cooperation with the End Prison Slavery in Texas movement, the Free Alabama Movement and others announced a coordinated strike on September 9th. While different movements have different demands, a common thread is opposition to unpaid and underpaid labor. Nearly 900,000 inmates work within US prisons. Some produce goods for sale by corporations, a process called “insourcing”, but most work in the prison laundry, kitchens and janitorial services, keeping prisons running. Alex Friedmann, managing editor of the indispensable Prison Legal News observes that, “If our criminal-justice system had to pay a fair wage for labor that inmates provide, it would collapse.”
In most states and in federal prisons, inmates are paid a small fraction of the minimum wage for their work. In Texas and Arkansas, they are not paid at all. Activists point out that forced labor for unfair or no wages is tantamount to slavery. And while good students of American history know that the 13th amendment abolished slavery, not everyone knows that slavery continued to be permitted “a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted”. In her brilliant book, The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander points out that after slavery was abolished, southern states began aggressively arresting and imprisoning African Americans, then leasing convicts as hired labor to the plantation owners who previously kept slaves. Since the start of the war on drugs, the US prison population has quadrupled, and African-Americans have been disproportionately imprisoned for drug crimes. Much as Jim Crow and convict leasing reproduced much of the control structures of slavery, the war on drugs, Alexander and others argue, is producing a system that looks like contemporary slavery.
Organizers called on inmates to refuse to report to work, hoping to paralyze prison operations and force guards to take on essential jobs. It’s unclear how many inmates were willing to risk punishment and retribution by participating. Some facilities may have preemptively locked down their facilities to prevent strikes from occurring. Holmes Correctional facility in Florida announced a lockdown after a reported riot the day before the general strike. Subsequently, two other Florida facilities have been in lockdown starting during the strike, and others report “disturbances”. The spokesperson for the Florida prison system reported that Friday’s disruptions included everything from a few inmates failing to report for work to “major” revolts.
Ar Holman Prison in Alabama, where some of the movement organizers are based, prison authorities report that 45 prisoners refused to work on Friday. IWOC, the organizers of the strike, report that South Carolina prisoners have issued a list of demands before they return to work and that as many as 30 prisoners are striking. Perry Correctional Institution in Greenville, SC is reported to be on lockdown in response to the protests. Some of the news reported on the IWOC feed is less optimistic – they report the few prisoners who’ve decided to strike in North Carolina are outnumbered by those who did not participate.
And that’s basically what we know.
It’s possible that the protests have been disappointingly small. It’s exceedingly hard to organize a nationwide movement given the barriers to communication prisoners face. Wired published an intriguing article on the role of social media in organizing the strike, but no one should conclude that inmates with smuggled mobile phones have the level of internet access protesters in Tahrir had, for example. (Still, the Free Alabama Movement manages to maintain a YouTube presence with videos filmed from inside prison.) It’s also possible that the protests are more widespread that we know. That’s what IWOC organizers predicted, suggesting that it will be at least a week before we know what actually happened on the 9th. It’s likely that many protesters will be cut off from mail and phone, unable to report on what’s going on within their prisons.
I’ve been writing lately about situations in which readers can have power by calling attention to events in the world. This is one of those situations. If the prison strike becomes a nationwide story, it’s likely that some wardens will be more cautious than they otherwise would in taking punitive action against strike participants. And while it’s hard for anyone to report on conditions in prisons, large media organizations like the Washington Post, the New York Times, NPR and others may be able to reach out to existing contacts and provide a more detailed view of events – and none of those three have done significant reporting on this strike thus far. Especially if you are a subscriber or supporter, this would be an excellent time to write a note to the public editor asking for close coverage to this topic.
Perhaps the call for the nation’s largest prison strike has failed. Or perhaps we’re seeing the beginnings of a long action that will change incarceration as we know it. It’s a problem that we don’t – and can’t – know. A nation that imprisons 1% of its population has an obligation to know what’s happening to those 2.4 million people, and right now, we don’t know.
Here are some of the resources I’m leaning on to follow the strike. Isabelle Nastasia is keeping a list of reports on strike actions at Mask Magazine. IWOC’s Facebook page is sharing reports as they come in from individual prisons.
There’s been some exemplary work done reporting on the strike ahead of time. The American Prospect published my single favorite text piece… though it’s from 2014… and The Nib features Sofie Louise Dam’s graphic briefing on the strike, which is a must-read.
Also published on Medium.