By: Tom Kutsch, The Guardian
National Prison Strike graphic
A nationwide prison strike over conditions and wages behind bars, which organizers tipped to be the biggest of its kind in US history, was under way in at least several correctional facilities across the country on Friday, according to prison rights advocates.
Inmates from several states, who had bound together with the help of activists and organizing groups, aimed the national strikes – which had been in the making for several months – against what they said amounted to slave labor conditions amid mass incarceration in the country.
The coordinated events, which organizers targeted in as many as 24 states, occurred on the 45th anniversary of the riots at Attica prison in New York – the largest prison uprising in American history – over grievances today’s protesters say are similar, including poor sanitary conditions and prison jobs that amount to forced labor.
In April, one of the main national groups organizing the campaign, the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee (IWOC), under the banner of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) union, announced its call to action.
“This is a call for a nation-wide prisoner work stoppage to end prison slavery,” it said. “They cannot run these facilities without us.”
“Work is good for anyone,” Melvin Ray, who is incarcerated at the WE Donaldson correctional facility in Bessemer, Alabama, told Mother Jones on Friday. “The problem is that our work is producing services that we’re being charged for, that we don’t get any compensation from.”
Ray is a member of the group called the Free Alabama Movement, which has been instrumental in leading the strike efforts, along with other groups formed with the help of incarcerated individuals such as the Free Ohio Movement, the Free Mississippi Movement and the End Prison Slavery in Texas movement.
According to the Federal Bureau of Prisons, prisoners at federal facilities can make between 12 and 40 cents an hour for their work, while state prison rates can be higher or lower. In several states, including Texas and Arkansas, inmates are paid no wage for their labor.
But the issue is not merely about earning meager amounts of money on the side. Inmates and outside organizers say that many US prisons simply would not run without the labor of inmates, including the work of building maintenance, cooking and cleaning.
“These strikes are our method for challenging mass incarceration,” Kinetik Justice, a founder of the Free Alabama Movement, who serves at the Holman correctional facility in Alabama, told Democracy Now in May, during a prior 10-day strike which mirrors what he and others planned for Friday.
Justice said that effort to push for a coordinated strikes came after “we understood that our incarceration was pretty much about our labor and the money that was being generated through the prison system”. He added that the prisoners, as a result, “began organizing around our labor and used it as a means and a method in order to bring about reform in the Alabama prison system”.
A press release from the Free Alabama Movement said that a widespread strike at Holman correctional facility had been launched a minute after midnight on Friday. The Alabama department of corrections subsequently said that at least 45 inmates had gone on strike.
The Free Alabama Movement also said also that strikes were under way at other prisons in Florida, South Carolina and Texas. It is difficult to get information from inside these prisons on the strike. Strike leaders are being placed in solitary confinement as punishment for striking and to disrupt the strike.
An IWOC statement on Friday said the South Carolina prisoners who were striking had released a set of demands before they would return to work, including the end of “free labor”. The IWOC also said on Friday that inmates at the Fluvanna correctional center for women in Virginia had gone on strike.
A report from the Miami Herald said that two prisons in the state had put their facilities on lockdown, a day after it reported that prison guards across the state were gearing up for possible strikes in conjunction with the national protests.
The full scope of Friday’s planned protests, however, has not yet emerged. Strikes have happened at many prisons across the country over wages and conditions in the past several years.
In 2013, one of the largest coordinated inmate resistance actions to date occurred when some 30,000 inmates across California went on hunger strike to protest at penal conditions, including a heavy reliance upon solitary confinement.