On Sep. 9 this year, an estimated 24,000 inmates in as many as 29 prisons around the United States refused to report to their jobs, protesting the abhorrent conditions in which prisoners often toil thanklessly in fields or warehouses for as little as 12 cents an hour. A month later, the strike—which was timed to coincide with the 45th anniversary of the Attica prison uprising—has largely ended. And despite the fact that tens of thousands of inmates managed to reasonably and peacefully protest what are clearly deplorable circumstances (and were even joined in their protest by guards at a penitentiary in Alabama, the state where the protest originated), hardly a word has been written about the protests in the mainstream media.
As we’ve written in these pages, the reasons for the media blackout of such a compelling story are simple and profit driven: The likes of AT&T, McDonald’s, Walmart and Verizon would rather not have the general public know just how much they profit from prison labor. As the prison population began to soar exponentially in the 1970s (it grew by 700 percent from 1970 to 2005) businesses began petitioning lawmakers to lift restrictions on inmate labor that had been on the books since the 19th century. A 1979 program enacted by Congress began incentivising private companies to use inmate labor, and draconian drug and sentencing policies began flooding our privately owned and for-profit prisons with inmates. Twenty-five years later, the annual profits from the program have soared to an astonishing $472 million (2015 numbers), a mere five percent of which went to the inmates doing the work.
International Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee (IIWOC) spokeswoman Azzurra Crispino recently described the protest’s motivations to The New Yorker, “The idea was, let’s have a work stoppage as a way of denying economic benefit to corporations… If prisoners were paid a minimum wage, we know perfectly well that we could not afford to incarcerate the number of people we do in this country.”
A nearly $500 million dollar industry is essentially not paying its laborers, nor is it allowing them to unionize, all while keeping them in dehumanizing living conditions that the workers are powerless to change. Consider that incarceration rates disproportionately impact men of color: one in every 15 African American men and one in every 36 Hispanic men are incarcerated in comparison to one in every 106 white men. From the Republican party’s preposterous war on drugs to Bill Clinton’s crime bill, black males—and their families—have suffered more than anyone, and they have suffered immeasurably. To add the additional indignity of working in a hellhole like Angola for a mere pittance is unjustifiable and inhumane. It is equally unjustifiable to deny the notion that the 13th amendment’s so-called loophole, which abolished slavery except as “punishment of crime,” is exactly what is occurring in 2016: Modern slavery.
Combine this with the rampant overcrowding of inmates and under-staffing of guards, and the stage seemed to be set for widespread violence that could have easily veered into catastrophe—much as it did in Attica 45 years ago.
From the outset of the protest it seemed things could go horribly wrong when around 400 inmates at Holmes Correctional Institute in Florida—which is both the nation’s third largest and one of its most understaffed and underpaid—staged a massive simultaneous protest in multiple sections of the prison. A creeping unease settled across the Sunshine State prison system like a blanket of humidity rolling in before a thunderstorm, and officials prepared for the absolute worst, calling in guards from five other state pens. But before sunrise the next day, the prisoners had dispersed, leaving only property damage in their wake—which is all the more remarkable in the face of a marked increase in conflicts between guards and inmates this year.
The fact that these inmates were able to transcend their myriad differences such as race and gang affiliation and peaceably make their displeasure known speaks to the severity of the issue. As author Heather Thompson recently told Mother Jones, “historically, this issue of labor always has been that thing in American prisons that has generated protest—when prisoners would slit their Achilles tendons so they wouldn’t have to work as slaves, to Attica in 1971, when one of the first protests was a strike in the metal shop there.”
So how did the authorities react to these non-violent protests that have sought to evoke memories of Attica? Reports have been hard to verify—unsurprising considering the level of autonomy that prison officials operate with—but there have been several reports of retaliation toward the prisoners involved in the protest. When inmates declined to show up for kitchen duty at Michigan’s Kinross Correctional Institute and instead peacefully marched in the prison’s yard, they were met by an armed tactical team and tear gas some inmates reported being left in the rain for hours as retaliation for participating. In South Carolina, prison officials simply flat out denied there were any protests, despite interviews with participants, reports from multiple prisons to the contrary and the list of reforms the apparently-imaginary protesters posted on Facebook (I’d wager this is not the first time the state has tried to pretend its indentured servants don’t exist).
For a certain segment of the population, “prison” is an abstract term that perhaps calls to mind an hours-long stint in jail for some youthful indiscretion, quickly forgotten, records expunged. For those people, this may seem a faraway problem—or simply not an issue. (“These are criminals after all,” goes the classic dismissal of the prisoners’ humanity.) But for many—especially those in the minority community—the threat of jail in America comes as a fearsome part of everyday life. In a country that has five percent of the world’s population but 25 percent of its prisoners, and doles out far longer sentences than almost every other country, how we treat our prisoners is clearly reflective of where we are and where we’re headed as a society.
If, as Dostoyevsky postulated, you can judge a society by how well it treats its prisoners, then what does it say about us that we allow corporations to massively profit from the blood and sweat of inmates to whom we deny basic human rights? Of course people deserve to pay for their crimes, but to permit this form of modern slavery is far beneath what this country should aspire to be—and what humans in general should aspire to be. As an inmate speaking under the condition of anonymity recently told The New Yorker, “Slavery is inhumane, no matter its disguise.”