9 saw thousands of incarcerated men and women go on strike to take a
stand against civil and environmental injustice in their respective
prisons. The multi-state strike was organized both inside and outside
of the prisons.
unions have begun addressing the twin issues of racial justice and
economic justice with all their members. These discussions have moved
from mere individual solutions to the need to end “institutional
racism.” There is no clearer example of institutional racism than
the prison system.
Alexander, in her book “The New Jim Crow,” wrote, “I came to
see that mass incarceration in the United States had emerged as a
stunningly comprehensive and well-disguised system of racialized
social control that functions in a manner strikingly similar to Jim
Crow. No other country in the world imprisons so many of its racial
or ethnic minorities as the U.S.” Since the beginning of the
so-called drug war in 1982, the U.S. penal population exploded from
300,000 to more than two million in less than 30 years.
National Prison Strike calls attention to the 13th Amendment of the
Constitution—generally believed to have ended slavery in 1865. But
there was a loophole, which says, “except as a punishment for crime
whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.” It was a common
practice in 1865 for plantation owners to lease Black convicts out of
the prisons to work their fields, and today prisons are a
in federal and state prisons run recycling plants, fight fires in
California and Georgia, and run call centers for state agencies. They
make uniforms for McDonalds, prepare artisanal cheeses for Whole
Foods, run call centers for AT&T. Think of a major corporation,
and they are getting free labor from prisoners. That is why the
National Prisoner Strike was a “Call To End Slavery In America.”
states do allow prisoners to be paid, but it is always under $1 an
hour, and in most states they are paid nothing. In federal prisons,
half of the wages are withheld for “room and board.” The
prisoners have to use whatever remains to pay for necessary items
that must be purchased from the prison, such as toilet paper,
deodorant, menstrual products, and laundry detergent.
who is being held in St. Clair Correctional Facility in Springville,
Ala., explains why he has been organizing the strike: “The
businesses involved understand that this is an operation of slavery
and everyone is exploiting the free labor out of the prisons.” Ray
believes that every action will spread work stoppages to more
prisons, incrementally slowing down the profit motive that drives the
prison system. They are also striking to address conditions within
the prison and publicize toxic work conditions, extreme heat,
insufficient access to health care, and contaminated drinking and
example, in Texas this summer there were an unreleased number of
deaths in state prisons as internal temperatures reached 140 degrees
on some days. Only 30 of 109 Texas State prisons have air
conditioning. There have been cases of heat stroke, extreme
dehydration and other heat related conditions. The state of Texas
houses 146,000 inmates and are in the middle of a lawsuit alleging
“deadly heat” in their facilities.
are also prisoners who are working unpaid in the Texas Correctional
Institution (TCI) Chemical Plant without air ventilated safety masks.
Whenever an auditor or inspector is at the gate a warning system goes
off to shut down all activities that have been deemed illegal or
hazardous by the fire marshal.
currently estimate that prisoners in over 40 facilities in 28 states
are participating in the actions. The earliest report came from
Holman State Prison in Atmore, Ala., where the Free Alabama Movement
has been organizing since 2014. Inmates report, “… all inmates at
Holman Prison refused to report to their prison jobs without
incident. With the rising of the sun came an eerie silence as
the men at Holman [lay] on their racks reading or sleeping. Officers
are performing all tasks.”
number of facilities in the South participating in strike activities
continues to expand. Prisoners in multiple Alabama prisons, at least
two others in Florida, Fluvanna Women’s Prison in Virginia, and
prisoners in North and South Carolina have organized strikes. Most
prisoners in Georgia do not work on Fridays but they planned to join
actions on Sept. 12.
from other areas of the country include 400 prisoners in Kinross
Correctional Facility in Michigan, who held a protest in the prison
yard and caused property damage resulting in 150 prisoners being
transferred to other facilities. Clallam Bay Correctional Center in
Washington State is in lockdown after actions there.
women prisoners refused to work, went on hunger strikes and/or led
uprisings in Central California—including the county jail in
Merced, Calif.—Kansas, and Lincoln, Neb.
important part of the strike was to show visible solidarity outside
the prison. There were support and solidarity actions in 15
major cities, and dozens of smaller cities and towns around the
country. This was an attempt to shine a light on the inherent racism
of mass incarceration and also reveal the hidden facts surrounding
huge profits being made from free labor.
support actions seem to have been as successful as the strikes
themselves. For example, in Corvallis, a small college town in
Oregon, a robust picket line was organized by the Corvallis IWW. Bart
Bolger, the strike demonstration organizer, spoke to the importance
of the strike tactic: “I really believe in the prison strikers’
strategy of withholding labor to create leverage and force change.
Hunger strikes get attention but hurting the bottom line for the
prison profiteers gets results.”
informational picket in front of the Benton County Courthouse
included students from Oregon State University and the organization
Allied Students For Another Politics (ASAP!). They had done their
research and found that the demands of the strikers hit close to
home. One of them had a sign that said prison labor had been used to
build the OSU solar farm, a green energy project. Prisoners were paid
93 cents an hour to assemble solar panels for the project. A
subtractor for Elon Musk’s highly subsidized solar energy company
used the prison labor to keep costs down on the green campus project.
strikes will continue inside the prisons, and the information about
the use of slave labor will continue to spread in communities large
and small around the country.
>> The article above was written by Ann Montague, and is reprinted from Socialist Action newspaper.