Paid Pennies for Their Work, Those Behind Bars Go on Strike

These actions are a culmination of the many frustrations experienced by incarcerated people—not only about exploitative prison labor practices, but about inhumane prison conditions in general.

On Friday, September 9, people in prisons across the United States protested what they dubbed "modern-day slavery" by refusing to work at their jobs, which are often effectively mandatory. Shutterstock

UPDATE: This piece has been updated to include post-publication comments from the North Carolina Department of Public Safety and the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

On Friday, September 9, people in prisons across the United States protested what they dubbed “modern-day slavery” by refusing to work at their jobs, which are often effectively mandatory.

“This is a call to action against slavery in America,” read the strikers’ official announcement, noting that the 13th Amendment forbids involuntary servitude as punishment for a criminal conviction.

The strikers do not have one broad set of demands. Instead, people in different prisons are asking for changes related to their specific circumstances. In Alabama, for instance, where the state has a perpetual prison overcrowding problem, strikers want the prison commissioner to release at least 400 individuals each month until the incarcerated population reaches the prisons’ actual capacity: 13,500, roughly half of what it is now. They also demand an end to subminimum wage work and the ability to form a labor union. Those in South Carolina, meanwhile, are calling for an end to uncompensated prison labor as well as the reinstitution of GED educational classes, a ban on the removal of mental health patients from treatment when they break prison rules, and fairer parole processes.

Strikes continued through the weekend, with people in various prisons across the United States reporting news about work stoppages, hunger strikes, protest marches, and other disturbances to general operations. These actions are a culmination of the many frustrations of those behind bars—not only about exploitative prison labor practices, but about inhumane prison conditions in general.

Forty-five years ago, on September 9, 1971, people imprisoned at New York’s maximum security prison in Attica took over the prison, holding 43 staff hostage. They issued 27 demands, including adequate medical care, parole reform, and an end to the violence and racism by the majority-white prison staff.

Several specifically addressed prison labor opportunities and protections: The men demanded that industries be allowed to enter prisons and provide jobs that paid at least minimum wage; the right to join or form labor unions; workers’ compensation for those injured while working; and prison labor practices that conformed with state and federal minimum wage laws.

More than four decades later, some of the other demands, such as higher education programs, were provided and later rescinded. But none of the labor-related demands have been met. In 1977, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that incarcerated workers have no right to form a labor union. Some prison jobs—including mopping the floor, working in the kitchen, or scrubbing toilets—pay prisoners scant pennies, even though these are the jobs that keep the day-to-day operation of the prisons going.

And while industries, including state agencies specifically formed to make use of incarcerated labor, have been allowed to enter prisons, they are not required to directly pay imprisoned employees minimum wage.

New York state prisoners, for instance, can manufacture products for Corcraft, a division of the state government that sells goods and services to government agencies, schools, courts, and police departments. In Attica, prisoners working for Corcraft manufacture metal desks, filing cabinets, computer tables, lockers, storage cabinets, and even cell desks and tables. Though Corcraft cannot sell to private sectors, Corcraft’s 2013 revenue was nearly $48 million. The hourly pay averages 62 cents per hour; New York’s state minimum wage is $9 an hour. Similar programs exist in other state prisons, such as Alabama and New Jersey, while the federal prison system has Unicor.

Other state prison systems, such as that in Colorado, allow private companies to use prison labor. The women’s prison in Pueblo, for instance, started a farm labor program in 2007. During that first year, a 43-year-old woman collapsed and died while in the field. Local farms pay the Department of Corrections $9.60 per hour for each laborer; according to the Pueblo Chieftain, the women themselves earn between $4.50 and $8 for each day worked. If a woman owes child support or restitution, the money is first applied to that balance. (When the program began, women reported keeping $4 to $5.50 per day.) The funds not allocated to women go toward staff costs, food, and transportation.

Haystack Mountain, which produces goat cheese, pays Colorado prisoners 66 cents a day to milk approximately 1,000 goats, according to Prison Legal News. Baskets of these cheeses sell for $49 to $89 online. The Colorado minimum wage is $8.31 an hour.

Significantly, those behind the work programs often note that their jobs quell the potential for prisoner organization. Corcraft, for instance, boasts that its jobs “help prevent disruption.” In other words, people working are less likely to have the time and energy to broadly demand change. The same holds true across the country. Despite the discrepancy between pay and profit, those who land these industry jobs, with their better pay and potential for more satisfaction than swabbing floors, are less likely to do anything to risk losing them. Take Colorado: With nearly 20,000 people in its state prison system, it has about 1,800 private-industry jobs available. That’s powerful incentive for those who land these jobs to not rock the boat about working conditions or the ways in which their pay is divided.

Even so, organizing has been taking place, including among those working private-industry jobs. And on Friday, people inside prisons across the country went on strike or took other actions. Inside Alabama’s Holman prison, where prison labor runs the kitchen, produces state license plates, and manufactures bed linens for prisons, every incarcerated person refused to go to their prison job. “With the rising of the sun came an eerie silence as the men at Holman laid on their racks reading or sleeping,” a person inside the prison reported. “Officers are performing all tasks.” (Prison officials, however, offered a different account, stating that only 45 people at Holman refused to attend work. They stated that the prison was not placed on lockdown, meaning no one was locked in their cells.)

In North Carolina, supporters reported hearing that many people in the state’s prisons did not go to work, though some did. Supporters also said prisoners who were suspected of being leaders in the strike were placed on lockdown. North Carolina prison officials did not return Rewire‘s request for comment for more information before publication. After publication, a representative told Rewire, “We did not experience anything like that. We had not issues with inmates refusing to work or causing any disturbances in our facilities. It was very quiet on that prison strike day. Nothing really happened in our facilities.”

People in women’s prisons have also reportedly been participating. In the Central California Women’s Facility, not everyone knew about the strike; however, some did and refused to work that day. Because the strike had been so well-publicized, staff reacted by locking down the entire prison, thus stopping all work for the day. (A representative from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation told Rewire after publication that there had been no reports of strike activities or prisons on lockdown.) Supporters in Virginia said that women imprisoned at the Fluvanna Correctional Center also participated.

Megan, a volunteer at a prison who asked to be referred to by a pseudonym, noted that many women may not have been aware of the strike. “A lot of the focus on the work stoppage has focused on men’s prisons,” she said.

Incarcerated women’s relationship to prison labor is often complicated and nuanced. Many women lack financial support from family members, who may also be caring for their children during their incarceration. Others may be cut off from their families entirely. For many, the pittance paid by their prison jobs is the only money they have. In February 2016, Michelle Miles, speaking from the federal prison in Danbury, Connecticut, spoke about prison labor at a symposium at Columbia University. She stated that her job at Unicor, which paid $17 per month, had enabled her to both buy necessities like soap, deodorant, and shampoo and call her family. But changes to the prison closed the Unicor program. “When my job closed down, I felt like I hit rock bottom,” she said.

Her next job paid $6 per month. “Now, I have to make the choice between calling my mom or buying a bar of soap,” she said. (In May 2016, Miles received clemency from Obama and, on June 1, walked out of prison.)

The same holds true in many state prisons. At the same time, “a lot of women would rather be busy even if they’re not in a coveted job,” stated Megan. Work allows them out of the confines of their cells, and sometimes provides them with a sense of purpose.

In addition, refusing to work carries a heavy price. “If they are offered a job and refuse it, they can be subject to disciplinary action,” Megan explained. “This can mean that they can’t go to [other] programming, they can be classified as a higher security risk, and they might get sent to a [more restrictive] unit where everyone is idle.”

Disciplinary action can also jeopardize their access to visits. “I’m not saying that fathers don’t cherish their visits with families,” clarified Megan, “but women have said that visits are their lifeline. It’s a higher-stake issue that they’re not willing to lose.”

And just as in men’s prisons, even if information about organizing and actions does reach a woman in prison, she faces retaliation and repression if she is caught sharing that information. Megan said that in the prison where she volunteers, an officer overheard one woman talking to others about the upcoming strike. The woman, according to Megan, was charged with “inciting a riot” and sent to solitary confinement for 30 to 60 days.

Another person, who asked to remain anonymous, told Rewire about her friend, who is imprisoned in the federal prison system. Over the summer, she said the woman spent two months in solitary confinement, supposedly for involvement in organizing Friday’s prison strike. In the end, she said her friend was charged with nothing, but officials transferred her to another prison across the country. This past weekend, at another federal prison where some behind bars were striking, the women’s visits were allegedly denied; the men’s visits were not. According to reports, women were also placed on lockdown; it is unclear whether the men were as well.

Megan stresses that if there were more outside support and efforts to link women’s personal in-prison struggles with broader efforts around resistance and organizing, more individuals in women’s prisons would feel emboldened to get involved. Although the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee (IWOC), which functions as a liaison for people imprisoned in different states to organize with each other and which has supported the strike from its conception, has sent materials about the strike into various women’s prisons, political outreach and support around prison issues usually focuses on men behind bars.

As Megan added, “this is not to say that women are docile or complicit. There are other forms of resistance.”

It’s hard to tell the overall numbers of prisons that are participating in the strike. Once a prison is placed on lockdown, people inside have no access to phones or digital messaging systems. Prisons in at least seven states have been placed on lockdown, though it’s not clear if all the lockdowns are strike-related. On Saturday, news of prison strikes in Kansas and Nebraska was continuing to roll in. People in other jails and prisons have reportedly started hunger strikes, held sit-down strikes, and, in Michigan’s Kinross Correctional Facility, participated in a march—illegal in prison—involving hundreds. Kinross and other prisons have reported protests in which incarcerated people trashed parts of the prison and set fires. It may be several weeks until anyone knows the full reach of the actions.

Overall, Ben Turk, the in-reach co-chair of the IWOC, told Rewire that he is hopeful the strike will shift the current conversation around mass incarceration and prison reform from “ankle bracelets and hot-spot policing.”

“People taking this direct action and breaking through the media silence will take the dialogue and put it in the hands of those most impacted,” he said.