America’s Prisoners Have Had Enough

Ever since Ronald Reagan broke the PATCO union, strikes in the US have had very limited success. Recently, however, strikes have regained some of their effectiveness, as illustrated by the victorious strike against Verizon by the Communications Workers of America and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, the recent walkouts by teachers in West Virginia, Kentucky, and Arizona, and the fight for $15 led by fast food workers around the country. Often, these strikes are done out of pure desperation and also with considerable risk.

One group of people whose desperation is clear are the prisoners in the jails and detention centers around the US and, thanks to the coordination of jailhouse lawyers across the country, those prisoners are currently on strike. You would think that the focus of the strike might be on the brutal, violent, and overcrowded conditions as exemplified by the recently closed Walnut Grove Correctional Facility in Mississippi.

Or you might think that the prisoners would be striking against the fact that it appears many of the nation’s prisons and detention facilities have been built on toxic sites, creating extensive and serious health problems for inmates, especially those that have to serve longer sentences. A recent study found that nearly one third of federal and state prisons lie within 3 miles of a Superfund site. Nearly 200 lie within one mile of one and the Victorville prison in California is built directly on top of a radioactive Superfund site. Some prisons in this country suffer from air and water quality that does not meet federal safety guidelines. As one inmate who fought against this injustice described it, “This is something that’s going on throughout the country. [Contractors] extract all the good stuff from the land, then they sell it to waste companies that contaminate the land, and then they sell it to prisons. Then they start shipping inmates there, and people start getting sick.”

And, yes, the abuse, the conditions, and the lack of any real rehabilitation are part of the reason for these protests. But the real driving force behind what the prisoners around the country are actually striking against is the determination to stop being used as slave labor. Every day, over three-quarters of a million inmates are put to work, in many states compulsorily, for what amount to slave wages. Louisiana, infamous for its historical brutality of prisoners, pays these working inmates 4 cents an hour. Last year, California used prison labor to fight the state’s wildfires, paying those inmates just $2 per day plus $1 per hour. Those were actually plum jobs as the state usually only pays inmates a maximum of $4 per day. In Oklahoma, a supposed alternative for prison was actually a slave labor camp for a large private company that supplied poultry products to some of the largest companies in the US such as KFC and Walmart. In fact, private prisons receive most of the benefits of using prisoners as slave labor purely for maintenance of the facilities.

Now it appears that ICE detainees have also joined this nationwide action and some are going on a hunger strike. Beyond the already horrific conditions that have been uncovered during the ongoing family separation scandal, ICE has been one of the worst offenders in having its detainees forced into slave labor. There is an ongoing class action involving tens of thousands of ICE detainees that were forced to work for $1 per day or even nothing at all in violation of federal and state anti-slavery laws. In addition, these ICE detention facilities, run by private companies, were also violating state minimum wage laws.

One of the few areas of at least some bipartisan agreement is the need for sentencing and prison reform. Needless to say, it always seems to get derailed by the GOP’s fear of its base looking at that as a betrayal of their law and order mantra of the last 50 years. Hopes for getting something done this year were postponed until after the midterms because of that fear. But, if that reform ever does happen, it must include the elimination of this barbaric practice of forced labor and include the requirement to at least pay the minimum wage for the work actually done.

Originally published at on August 28, 2018.

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