Across 24 states, inmates are sick of poisoned water, solitary confinement, and forced labor.
This September 9, we may witness the largest prison strike in US history. Potentially thousands of inmates across both state and federal prisons in as many as 24 states plan to engage in a coordinated strike and protest in an attempt to bring attention to the daily injustice of their lives. The strikers are calling for an end to “slave-like” working conditions, illegal reprisals, and inhumane living conditions.
Planned for the 45th anniversary of the Attica Prison uprising, the actions of September 9 will shed light on the often decrepit conditions suffered by the 2.4 million people in what is the largest carceral system in the world. They will also mark a new point in the fight against mass incarceration, and likely stand as a harbinger for further actions and strikes to come. Malik Washington, an inmate in the H. H. Coffield Unit in Texas and the chief spokesperson for the End Prison Slavery in Texas movement, wrote to me in a letter: “Prisoners in Amerikan prisons are sick and tired of being degraded, dehumanized, and exploited.”
Building a Movement Behind Bars
The September action didn’t come out of nowhere. Siddique Abdullah Hasan, an inmate in Ohio State Penitentiary and a member of the Free Ohio Movement, describes it as just the latest part of “an ongoing resistance movement” that has seen increasing numbers of work strikes, hunger strikes, and protests hitting prisons across the country in the past decade. Back in 2010, inmates in at least six different state prisons in Georgia staged a labor strike, protesting prison conditions and lack of remuneration for their forced labor.
In 2013, in perhaps the most widely reported prison action in recent years, up to 30,000 inmates engaged in a hunger strike across California’s state facilities, forcing the hand of California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation to reform long-term solitary confinement policies, releasing as many as 2,000 prisoners to the general prison population in 2015. So far, 2016 has brought a wave of new strikes, starting with inmates in seven Texas state prisons striking in April. Alabama inmates engaged in a work strike and protest in May, and since then there have been work strikes and hunger strikes in Mississippi, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Ohio, Nevada, Louisiana, and Pennsylvania.
Due to the number of facilities involved in September’s strike, the list of grievances, as well as the list of demands, is long, and varies both state-to-state and prison-to-prison. In Texas one of the common complaints is the deadly heat, with most facilities lacking air-conditioning, and heat indexes reportedly rising into the 150s Fahrenheit in some units. Inmates in Wisconsin and Ohio are protesting the excessive use of solitary confinement.
Facilities in Texas, Alabama and elsewhere regularly serve rotten food to inmates (a video posted on YouTube by members of the group Free Alabama Movement (FAM) show revolting “hamburger patties” that were green with mold). In prisons across the country, including in Texas, Alabama, Pennsylvania, and Colorado, drinking water has been found to be contaminated with arsenic or other poisonous chemicals.
But there is one issue that has driven the energy behind September’s actions more than any other: Prison labor. Across the US, there are nearly 900,000 inmates who currently work in prisons. In states such as Colorado and Arizona, inmates earn as little as little as a few cents per hour for their work. In Texas, Alabama, Georgia, and Arkansas, incarcerated people are forced to work for free.
The general public has little idea of the scope of prison labor, considering how pervasive it is. Most prisons force inmates to perform the basic facility maintenance—mopping floors, cutting grass, cooking, or washing clothes—that keep prisons running. Inmate author and long-time prisoner rights activist Rashid Johnson describes the entire Texas Prison system as dependent upon “its prisoner labor, with the prisoners literally performing every job short of running the cell blocks.” A number of states and federally run prisons also use inmate labor to manufacture marketable goods and services. Some of this labor is outsourced by private corporations, including Wal-Mart, McDonald’s, Victoria’s Secret, Nordstrom’s, and AT&T Wireless, to name a few recognizable brand names.
When prison labor is paid, the compensation varies from federal to state to private prisons, rising rarely as high as $4.73 an hour, still far below minimum wages. The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) which was passed in 1938 to establish minimum wage guarantees, doesn’t necessarily apply to inmates. Through a terminological sleight of hand, those running the prison work programs claim that inmates are not technically employees, and thus they don’t have to treat them by federal labor standards. Inmates, however, often feel that they aren’t treated by any standards at all. “Everyday we are being subjected to Third World living conditions,” Norris Hicks, an inmate in the Coffield Unit in Texas, wrote to me.
Many assume that forced labor has had no place in America’s economic system since slavery was abolished at the end of the Civil War. But the 13th Amendment, which constitutionally outlawed slavery in 1865 (though some states didn’t ratify the amendment until much later, with Mississippi holding out until 2013), provides for some glaring exceptions, which have been exploited to varying degrees in the century and a half since its passing.
According to the amendment, “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States.” In effect, the “punishment clause,” which sits between the two commas, opens the door for what many see as the continuation of slavery. “In Texas we are given a choice,” Malik Washington writes, “either work for free or suffer harsh disciplinary sanctions.” When inmates today claim that they are forced into slave labor, it is not to equate their conditions with antebellum chattel slavery—but to avoid the fraught term altogether would be to dismiss the lived experience and profound suffering of tens of thousands of inmates in the US prison system.
Following the adoption of the 13th Amendment , southern states quickly set about implementing prison labor programs, such as convict leasing, in which, according to Patrice A. Fulcher, “a large number of Africans [were] working for the benefit of wealthy Southerners for free.” As Robert Perkinson writes in his book Texas Tough, while Jim Crow laws “outlined a legal framework for black subjugation, the criminal justice system put muscle behind it.” Between 1865 and 1868, the Texas prison population, Perkinson describes, almost quadrupled, with the private leasing of Texas inmates opening “the door for any ‘company or individual’ to hire convicts for railroad construction, mining, iron smelting, or irrigation.” This surge in incarceration rates was explicitly racist and unprecedented—that is, until the War on Drugs caused the US prison population to explode over the past 40 years.
When ‘Good Time’ Means More Hard Time
Instead of earning money for their labor, most Texas inmates earn “good time” or “work time” credits. These credits accrue depending on the total number of days you spend in prison (also known as “flat time”) without committing violations, as well as the number of days you work. You can earn 20 good time days and 15 work time days for every month you spend in jail, which can ostensibly lead to earlier parole hearings. Inmates convicted of aggravated felonies, however, can’t earn either good time or work time, and yet they are still forced to work without compensation. Norris Hicks described getting involved in the group End Prison Slavery in Texas when he realized that “thousands of prisoners had time-sheets showing that they had completed more than 100 percent of their time.”
Felix Tijerina, who is incarcerated in Texas for an aggravated felony, told me that his nearly 20 years of working has amounted to nothing. Tijerina has spent almost two decades toiling in a garment factory, where he has sewn medical scrubs and has trained fellow inmates, and even new managers. He described consistent harassment by guards, who “talk smack” to inmates, or yell at them to “get the fuck back to work” if they linger on breaks.
To have a chance to eat breakfast before work, which begins at 4:15 am, Tijerina has to wake up at 2:45 in the morning. (Another inmate, Eric Bergstrom, told me breakfast in his unit, Estelle, started at 1 am). Tijerina also told me that officers have a habit of writing bogus cases against inmates, which can result in them getting removed from their cells (their “homes,” as he referred to them) and being put in the more dangerous and populous dorms. Even when inmates are sick, he told me, they are refused medical attention and forced to work. Bergstrom, meanwhile, wrote about riding what he called a slave wagon out to the fields in the mornings to pick cotton at gunpoint. “It’s slavery,” Tijerina said. “There’s no two ways about it.”
Jessica Spencer, the wife of Texas inmate Lawrence Spencer, told me that her husband’s monthly report shows that he has completed 180 percent of his good time, and yet he was denied parole this February. His work conditions are, he tells his wife, “horrible.” He says he sometimes spends all day digging stumps out of the ground, without lunch or sufficient water breaks. Spencer participated in the April strike in Texas, when he and other members of his “hoe-squad” sat down instead of taking up their tools. He claims they were handcuffed, written up, and the entire unit was placed on lockdown for two weeks. He wasn’t afforded a shower once in that stretch, he says, and for 14 days he and other inmates were only given two meager sack-lunches each day.
The same day that Spencer and his hoe-squad sat down on the job, Felix Tijerina and around 150 other inmates in the garment factory refused to sew. Their demands were simple: either get paid or get their work credits applied to their parole dates. Citing their First Amendment rights, they also voiced concerns of abuse, being falsely written up, and lack of medical care. As the 150 inmates sat around “kicking back and drinking coffee,” he, as one of the leaders, was handcuffed and accused of inciting a riot. “There was no riot,” he told me.
Bergstrom, meanwhile, says he was beaten in the knees by the unit’s warden, Tony O’Hare, and was similarly accused of “inciting a riot.” All of Bergstrom’s property, including his “religious materials, stamps, paper, pen, legal work, food, and fan” were then confiscated, and his wife and daughter have since been barred from visiting or contacting him in any way. (The Texas Department of Criminal Justice denies that there were any work stoppages or incidents in any of the units claiming to have gone on strike.)
Kinetic Justice Amun, an inmate in Alabama and one of the founders of FAM, has experienced firsthand the system’s wrath: He has been in solitary confinement for nearly three years, let outside sometimes for only a few hours every week. Prison is “not about rehabilitation,” Amun told me. “It’s not about crime and punishment. It’s about money. What Alabama is doing is not about corrections. It’s about creating a market of people.”
Organizing Inmate Labor
Organizing within prisons is notoriously difficult, and organizing across facilities even more so. In the lead up to September’s action, a number of groups have been coordinating with inmates, including numerous chapters of the Anarchist Black Cross and Free State Movements, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), and their Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee (IWOC).
The inmate-led FAM has spearheaded the agitation behind the strike—last year they were first to send out a call to action, Let the Crops Rot in the Fields, which set the emphatically political tone for the September action. FAM even drafted a comprehensive Freedom Bill, model legislation that calls for a sharp reduction in Alabama’s incarceration rate, as well as an end to unpaid labor: “Be it ENACTED,” the bill states, “that no citizen or laborer in the State of Alabama shall be required to work any job in this State without compensation of less that the prevailing minimum wage in Alabama.”
In May the IWW officially signed onto a call from FAM and the Free Virginia Movement to endorse the Nationally Coordinated Prisoner Work Stoppage on September 9. IWOC’s list of priorities is topped by calls for inmates to join the Incarcerated Workers Industrial Union #613, which, according to their Web site, is “the largest prisoner’s union in labor history.” (Prison unions, like minimum wages for prison labor, exist in a legal gray area: the right of inmates to meet as a union or collectively bargain was effectively rejected by the Supreme Court in 1977, when the justices deferred to prison officials’ safety concerns.) Their goal is to assist prisoners in challenging not only forced prison labor and the abominable conditions inside prisons, but “the system itself: break[ing] cycles of criminalization, exploitation, and the state sponsored divisions of our working class.”
While FAM is working closely with IWOC, FAM spokesperson Pastor Kenneth Sharpton Glasgow told me that FAM had a more radical stance, in that it did “not want to unionize prison labor, but to abolish it.”
Hope and Punishment
“The costs of organizing are high,” Robert Perkinson told me. The prisoners who strike on September 9 will face serious, and likely violent, consequences. Already, prison authorities are working to quash the action. Siddique Abdullah Hasan, one of Ohio’s lead organizers, was placed in administrative segregation (a form of solitary confinement) on August 9, after prison officials alleged that Hasan made a threat against the security of the prison—charges Hasan denied. According to prison officials, after 9 days in “Ag-Seg,” he was found guilty (though administrative documents obtained from a public records request are contradictory) and given a 30-day restriction on his phone privileges, until September 17.
But today’s courage to organize inside prisons is inspired, in part, by the increased race consciousness and organizing momentum outside of prisons. Greg Curry, an inmate in Ohio State Penitentiary, said, “Just as the Black Lives Matter Movement are saying to the cops and to society we ain’t having this no more.… It’s a new day. We’re saying that as prisoners it’s a new day. Just because we’re in prison we’re not going to accept this anymore. We’re fighting for our basic human rights.”
According to Perkinson, prison uprisings tend to “erupt at moments of hope.” Inmates today may be sensing a shift, a flicker of hope, in the national conversation about criminal justice—new and increasingly piercing critiques of the Drug War, of the system of mass incarceration, of the use of private prisons, of police brutality—and want to take advantage of the momentum to push for change inside prisons. Due to the extreme conditions—refusing to work, refusing to eat, or even letting the crops rot in the fields—strikes and protests can be, as Perkinson explained, “the only way prisoners have to assert their independence or humanity.”
Norris Hicks wrote to me: “I have been at trying to change things in the system since I came in 28 years ago.” This September, by sitting down at their work, or by refusing to leave their cells, inmates across the country will be taking concrete steps towards that change.