Bill Knight column for Mon., Tues. or Wed., Oct. 3, 4 or 5
It’s even more so when the strike involves prisoners.
But a recent job action in almost 50 U.S. facilities goes beyond wages, hours and working conditions.
It’s about slavery.
For more than three weeks, the largest prison strike in U.S. history has been going on, mostly with little attention. For months, inmates had been planning through a network of smuggled cell phones, social media, and help from supporters outside. One of the groups trying to help is the unaffiliated Industrial Workers of the World labor union and its Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee.
Prisoners’ mass refusal to report to jobs started Sept. 9, the 45th anniversary of the Attica (N.Y.) prison uprising, and at press time, 46 facilities in 24 states are reportedly affected. Supporters say at one point about 24,000 prisoners were striking.
However, information is hard to verify, and few news outlets are covering the story. Demonstrations supporting the strikers have occurred in dozens of U.S. cities and a few foreign countries, but the coordinated action has remained mostly ignored by officials and journalists alike. An information blackout mostly stems from prison administrators’ discretion in or withholding or disclosing details, and an unfortunate dwindling of skilled reporters with the tools and interest to cover the story.
What is evident is that prisoners are participating in simultaneous, nonviolent protests to demand basic human rights. Some reportedly went on hunger strikes, and others destroyed prison property in the days leading up to the work stoppage.
They’ve placed themselves in harm’s way, whether reactions and reprisals take the form of solitary confinement or institutional violence such as tear-gas attacks and the use of pellet guns, supporters say.
“What people have to realize is that these men and women inside prison — they expected to be retaliated against, but they sacrificed,” said Pastor Kenneth Glasgow, a former inmate and a supporter of the Free Alabama Movement, the prisoner-led group that first called for the nationwide strike.
“People on the outside are not understanding they are being bamboozled,” he added. “A lot of people are not realizing the value in what’s going on, they don’t realize that it’s slavery, that slavery still exists.”
The 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution prohibits “involuntary servitude” in addition to slavery –“except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.” That’s become a huge loophole that changed work as a form of correctional reform to a $2 billion a year industry, according to the Prison Policy Initiative, a nonprofit research institute.
Most able-bodied prisoners at federal facilities are required to work, for example, and at least 37 states permit contracting prisoners out to private companies. Almost 900,000 inmates work in prisons, many paid just a few cents an hour. The states that choose to not pay incarcerated people at all are all in the South: Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia and Texas.
“Meanwhile, companies profit from that unpaid labor,” writes Rebekah Barber, a researcher with the Institute for Southern Studies. “Little Sis, a government watchdog group, reported earlier this year that while most Texas inmates work without pay, Texas Correctional Industries – a for-profit corporation operated by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice – generated nearly $89 million in profits in fiscal year 2014. Among the companies that benefit from prison labor are McDonalds, Wal-Mart and Whole Foods.”
There are other issues: Inmates are protesting harsh parole systems and three-strike laws, medical neglect and overcrowding, and the practice of removing mental-health patients from treatment programs to the general population units for discipline.
The current strike isn’t the first such effort. Prison protests have been on the rise in recent years, following a 2010 strike during which thousands of Georgia prisoners refused to work, an action that was followed by others in Illinois, North Carolina, Virginia and Washington. In 2013, California prisoners coordinated a hunger strike against the use of solitary confinement that at its peak involved 30,000 prisoners. And this year, prisoners rioted at Holman prison in Alabama – one of the facilities most actively involved in the current job action – and inmates went on strike at five Texas facilities. In Alabama, prison guards also refused to work.
“The officers really understand [the prisoners’] reasoning even if they don’t agree with all of it and are just at the point where they don’t feel safe,” Glasgow said. “When you have people who are inside, locked up, who have overcome all these obstacles and barriers and have organized in 24 states, 40 to 50 prisons, that means all of us out here need to start stepping up.”
The risks – plus the exploitation at the root of the desperation – are extensive and growing.
[PICTURED: Graphic from mypublicnews.com.]