Story & Photo by Bailey Walker
Two years off the heels of the largest prison strike in United States history, inmates and advocacy groups have been organizing under threat of solitary confinement and other penalties. Work stoppages, sit-ins, hunger strikes and boycotts will make up a nationwide prison strike for Aug. 2018 to end what labor advocates call modern slavery. The use of sub-minimum wage labor encourages incarceration to sustain this labor force, advocates say. The prisoner advocacy group Jailhouse Lawyers Speak published a press release outlining demands and tactics for the strike.
“The strike demands were completely developed by prisoners,” said Amani Sawari, organization coordinator. “The organizing network began in South Carolina with Lee County but spread quickly to involve participants all across the country. Prisoners are taking the lead in establishing local demands.”
Sawari explained that prisoners focus on specific issues pertaining to their state, Washingtonians are focused on state divestment, while the Carolinas focus on voting rights. Whatever the main focus, the pushes in each area embody some part of the strike demands.
Sawari believes there is a kind of domino effect that occurs when regions focus on unique problems and win, “Regions are targeted with specifics, a win in one region is a win nationwide because as we begin to see barriers to prisoners involvement in the political process break down regionally we know we’ll see an overall improvement in the way that prisoners are treated and the circumstances of their environment nationwide.”
An air of intersectionality, solidarity between discriminated people, permeates the list of demands; the use of the word “human” over manwoman highlights inclusion of non-binary people who may not be either a man or woman, a focus on “black and brown” people and systemic racism and strengthening rehabilitation services for the neurodivergent (those with atypical neurcognitive function.) This element of inclusion and solidarity has allowed it to garner support among many human rights and leftist groups. This movement derives its core ideal from a desire to raise standard of living for all inmates across the country and one of the fundamental points of friction between the current system and this movement is the practice of what the activists call slavery.
The 13th Amendment was one of the first civil rights overhauls in American history. The measure was to be a means of following through on the Emancipation Proclamation and to act as the foundation of Reconstruction after the socioeconomic ramifications of the war. Both the North and South widely and violently rejected social reconstruction reforms and took advantage of many holes in the coverage of the law. Aside from practices such as redlining, job discrimination and other Jim Crow practices, vagrancy laws worked in tandem with the 13th Amendment.
The amendment reads “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, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” The nationalization of this practice is a well-known ‘loophole’ written about in many law journals. The state now holds a total, constitutional monopoly over “Slavery [and] involuntary servitude” due to the state being the entity that decides whether a party is “duly convicted” of a crime.
Inmates are demanding improved working conditions and an end to the practice they know as contemporary slavery. Depending on the work program an incarcerated person is in, they can expect to make between 14-63 cents per day. This wage largely includes maintenance work around the facility. If an inmate takes part in programs that partner with private businesses or government agencies that purchase prison-produced products, in other words programs that produce profit, the inmate can make 33 cents to $1.41. Some of the highest earners make around a dollar an hour, and those are inmates who are actively fighting fires in 24-hour shifts in California; when not actively firefighting, they receive $2 per day.
These low wages do not keep rate with what many states have implemented: pay-to-stay policies, which charge inmates a fee for the time they spend in the facility. In 2013, Prison Legal news reported Riverside County, California charges prisoners $142.42 per day in boarding fees. Using an incarcerated California firefighter wage, it would take around six straight days of active wildfire fighting to pay for one day of residence. Though boarding fees are significantly lower than that around the nation, they still more often than not don’t come close to being payable with a prison wage. This gap means most people who leave incarceration are saddled with debt, and if they’re felons, barred from a wide swath of employment as well. Those not leaving with debt have simply outsourced it, as friends and family members are often the ones supporting inmates.
The National Prison Strike runs Aug. 21 to Sept. 9. This labor movement, organized by incarcerated people, for incarcerated people, is by its very nature illegal. Each one of these acts is punishable by at least six months in solitary confinement: “possession of anything not authorized for retention or receipt by the inmate and not issued to [them] through regular channels (smuggling cell phones is integral to organizing, especially on a nationwide scale), refusing to work or to accept a program assignment, unexcused absence from work or any program assignment or failing to perform work as instructed by the supervisor.” Not to mention, the possibility of a litany of “rioting” charges for collective organizing; those of which start at an 18-month minimum isolation period.
Sawari urges organizers to stage protests and events in order to satisfy one goal: “Have everyone’s eyes on their local prison to witness prisoners action during the strike time Aug. 21- Sept. 9.”
For more information or to follow the strike, check out incarceratedworkers.org, sawarimi.org or follow @JailLawSpeak on Twitter.
The 15th Street News is a student publication at Rose State College.