Work 'Slavery,' Poor Conditions Spark Nationwide Prison Strike

Prisoners fed up with deplorable conditions and forced labor are planning protests in at least 17 states.

The actions, scheduled for Aug. 21 to Sept. 7, are to include refusing to eat or work, conducting sit-ins and sponsoring boycotts of companies that profit from prison labor.

“The main leverage that an inmate has is their own body,” Amani Sawari, a spokeswoman for the protesters, told Vox. “If they choose not to go to work and just sit in in the main area or the eating area, and all the prisoners choose to sit there and not go to the kitchen for lunchtime or dinnertime, if they choose not to clean or do the yardwork, this is the leverage that they have. Prisons cannot run without prisoners’ work.”

Sawari stressed that “prisoners want to be valued as contributors to our society.” She continued: “Every single field and industry is affected on some level by prisons, from our license plates to the fast food that we eat to the stores that we shop at. So we really need to recognize how we are supporting the prison industrial complex through the dollars that we spend.”

Tensions in American correctional facilities escalated recently when authorities called upon inmates to help battle wildfires in California. The prisoners received only a dollar per hour, plus $2 per day, for the hazardous duty.

Prisoners and their advocates want to draw attention to the common practice of exploiting the incarcerated to do hard labor for little money. Officials justify their use of inmates by pointing to a constitutional amendment that exempted prisoners from the national ban on chattel slavery.

“Prison slavery exists,” Sawari declared. “The 13th Amendment didn’t abolish slavery. It wrote slavery into the Constitution. There’s a general knowledge that the 13th Amendment abolished slavery, but if you read it, there’s an exception clause in the abolishing of it. That’s really contradictory — that something would be abolished and there would be an exception to that.”

The current protest organizing comes on the heels of a bloody riot in April at the Lee Correctional Institution in South Carolina, where inmates were dealing with outdated facilities.

In 2016, prisoners in a dozen states carried out the biggest strike in the nation's history. More than 24,000 people took part in actions at about 50 lockups. The strike, as well as the protests set for later this month, were timed to coincide with the anniversary of the 1971 Attica prison uprising in New York.

Improving conditions at the country's decaying correctional centers is expensive, and state lawmakers have shown little interest in doing anything about the problem.

Organizers of the upcoming protests have issued 10 demands, including “immediate improvements to the conditions of prisons” and “an immediate end to prison slavery.” Those who get jobs cleaning their facilities, cooking or performing other tasks typically get paid about 20 cents per hour, according to the Marshall Project.

Inmates also are speaking out against the soaring U.S. incarceration rate, racist criminal-justice policies, and inadequate rehabilitation services.

Strike participants in certain parts of the country have their own issues. For example, those in South Carolina are seeking voting rights. Officials in the state hope to avoid a repeat of the April riot. The Associated Press reported that seven inmates were killed and at least 17 suffered serious injuries.

“After that violent incident happened, South Carolina prisoners and the jailhouse lawyers group out of Lee County came out with the strike demands and really wanted to do something to draw attention to the dehumanizing environment of prisons in general,” Sawari said.

During the riot, the bodies of prisoners were “literally stacked on top of each other,” an inmate told the AP. The facility's guards were accused of stabbing and beating the protesters. No prison personnel were injured.  Authorities blamed the carnage on a lack of sufficient staffing, as well as gang rivalries.

Others said the riot stemmed from ongoing violence. The State, a South Carolina newspaper, noted that the number of inmates killed in the state's prisons had “more than doubled in 2017 from the year before and quadrupled from two years ago.”

Sawari recalled that “prisoners were placed in some really aggravated conditions.” She explained: “They were placed on lockdown all day. They weren’t allowed to eat or use the bathroom. They were placed in units with rival gang members. And then their lockers were taken away, so they didn’t have any safe place to put their personal belongings, which really aggravated and caused tensions among prisoners — to the point where fights broke out, inevitably.”

South Carolina is not the only place where prison life is dangerous. In 2009, an article in the Journal of Correctional Health Care revealed that more than one-fifth of male inmates nationwide had been assaulted. Between 2 percent and 5 percent were victims of sexual abuse.

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