Prison strikes – a protest of slavery

Though not widely reported in Canada,
September has seen a significant strike among prisoners South of the border.
Organized by the
Workers Organizing Committee
(IWOC), prisoners in at least 24 States
have coordinated work stoppages. The strikes began on September 9th,
on the 45th anniversary of the Attica prison uprising.

As reported by The Atlantic, In the U.S. the
13th Amendment prohibits slavery and involuntary servitude, “except
as punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.”
Prisoners, in other words, can be forced to work. And they are.

Despite the fact that they engage in
prison labour, inmates are not considered “employees” and are therefore unable
to form unions. Nevertheless, prisoners have coordinated strikes largely
because they perceive the current system of prison labour to be little more
than a form of slavery.

Indeed, it would be hard to argue
otherwise. In the federal system, for instance, a prisoner’s labour is
remunerated at a mere 23 cents per hour. At the State level, the wages may be
even less. As reported by
The Nation, in Texas,
Alabama, Georgia, and Arkansas, incarcerated people are not compensated and are
forced to work for free.

Prisoners often perform labour for major
corporations which contract with both public and private correctional
facilities. In contracting with prisons, corporations benefit from extremely
cheap labour. Wal-Mart uses prisoners to scrub products, Starbucks to package
coffee, and Victoria’s Secret to sew clothing. These are but a few of the many
heavy-weights that exploit prison labour to reduce payroll costs. Doing an end
run around labour standards, the corporations profit from prison labour, pay the
workers only pennies per hour, if that much.

Prison labour, in all but name, is a species
of slavery – and prisoners, quite rightly, are demanding change.

That the system of prison labour is
basically a mere rebranding of slavery is especially concerning given the fact
that visible minorities are over-represented in the prison population. Add to
this the fact that the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery in
1855, also created fertile ground to allow for the continuation of slavery
through the prison industry.

When slavery was legally abolished, a new set of laws
called the “
Black Codes” emerged to criminalize legal activity for
African-Americans. Acts such as standing in one area of town or walking at
night, for example, became the criminal acts of “loitering” or “breaking
curfew.” African Americans were disproportionately imprisoned for these
harmless acts, and the percentage of African Americans in prison skyrocketed.

A system of convict leasing was developed to allow white slave plantation owners
in the South to literally purchase prisoners to live on their property and work
under their control. The system generated revenue and profits for both the
state and private parties.

To ask whether the system of convict
leasing and the Black Codes are not eerily similar to the intersection of
today’s prison industry and the over-incarceration of minorities through
unsuccessful policies, like the War on Drugs, is to begin to acknowledge that
maybe, just maybe, slavery never left – it just got rebranded.

Recognizing this basic injustice, solidarity
protests have arisen. Supporters of incarcerated workers have taken to the
streets to express solidarity and join the fight against barely compensated
prison labour.

on the average worker

Allowing corporations to shirk their
responsibilities to pay workers fair wages not only condones slavery of the
prisoners, it damages the broader labour market. When employers are permitted
to “hire” workers at pennies per hour, a downward pressure is created, pulling
down the wages of all workers. At the federal level, in 2011, Unicor, an
authorized vendor for numerous government agencies, recorded profits of around
$900 million.
According to CNN, Unicor competes
with small businesses for government contracts to make provisions for the divisions
of the U.S. government, like the U.S. Air Force. With Unicor’s hourly labour
costs being mere pennies, small businesses can’t compete and it risks forcing
these businesses to shutter their doors.

As Scott Paul, Executive Director of the Alliance for American
notes, this
creates a race to the bottom for wages, harming American workers:


“It’s bad enough that
our companies have to compete with exploited and forced labor in China. …They shouldn’t have to
compete against prison labor here at home. The goal should be for other
nations to aspire to the quality of life that Americans enjoy, not to discard our efforts through a downward
competitive spiral.

The prison labour industry, in
other words, is not a discrete issue affecting only inmates. This
industry is an affront and assault
to the rights and opportunities of all workers.”


No matter how you look at it, the system
of prison labour hurts workers while providing a boon for government and
private corporations. The mass work stoppages coordinated among prisoners are
to be applauded for bringing awareness to the sheer size and scope of this
problem. All workers, whether inmates or not, deserve fair wages for their
labour. If this system of new-age slavery would end and inmates were fairly
compensated, not only would the prisoners benefit, workers in society would no
longer need to compete with the grossly inadequate wages of prisoners. Whether
the prisoner strikes effect change remains to be seen, but one thing is
certain: to turn a blind eye to their plight is no longer an adequate response.

For more on the prison
industrial complex, see our previous post

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