Imagine if prison laborers were entitled to a minimum wage, overtime pay, and workers’ compensation when injured on the job. It might be difficult to envision if you’re not used to thinking of incarcerated people as workers. But it’s their labor of cooking, clerical and janitorial work, running the laundry, and even agricultural work that keeps prisons operating. It’s also quite possible that a worker in a government-run prison factory made the license plate on your car, the furniture in your home, or the shoes on your feet.
Last September, inmates around the nation boldly resisted as exploited workers have often done in the past. They staged the largest prison strike in U.S. history. It was organized by the Free Alabama Movement, a group of prisoners and allies, and the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee, a segment of the Industrial Workers of the World. The strike began on the forty-fifth anniversary of the Attica Rebellion, the 1971 uprising at a penitentiary in rural New York that ended with a brutal takeover by state police. Over twelve days, the action spread to at least forty-six men’s and women’s prisons and county jails. Prisoners stopped work, went on hunger strikes, and engaged in other kinds of organized protests. The strikes resulted in sizable financial losses for public agencies and government corporations like the California Prison Industry Authority. According to the Solidarity Research Center, the California prison system lost as much as $636,068 in revenue for every day the strike lasted.
Prison strikers faced retaliation for their actions, including punitive isolation, denial of communication privileges, and physical and verbal violence by prison staff. But there were some concrete victories—resisters in Santa Clara County jail ended their five-day hunger strike after they successfully pressured the jail to stop sending high-risk inmates into indefinite isolation and to reduce prices of commissary goods.
Organizers named the strike a “Call to Action Against Slavery in America.” As Melvin Ray, a member of the Free Alabama movement put it, “Our protest against prison slavery is a protest against the school-to-prison pipeline, a protest against police terror, a protest against post-release controls . . . the entire structure of courts and police, of control and slave-catching must shift to accommodate us as humans, rather than slaves.”
Specific demands, which varied by prison and state, included the right to be fairly compensated for work, basic amenities such as clean water, and an end to solitary confinement. Paying incarcerated people decent wages, enforcing worker protections, and providing them with healthy food and medical care would make the prison industrial complex, as we know it, unsustainable. And, as Ray made clear, the fight for prisoner rights is a “non-reformist reform” that should be part of a broader labor movement that recognizes the interconnectedness of economic, racial, and criminal injustice.
Of course, if all incarcerated Americans were treated humanely and compensated fairly for their labor, not only black people would benefit. But the disproportionate numbers of African Americans behind bars—40 percent of the entire prison population—is part of the legacy of slavery, and illustrates the ways in which labor exploitation and the criminalization of blackness converge. So we might also think about the struggle for prisoners’ labor and human rights as a form of reparations.
Although the initial demand for reparations came at the dawn of the Reconstruction period in 1865, there has been a renewed interest in the idea in recent years among activists and writers, from Mary Frances Berry to the authors of the Vision for Black Lives policy platform to Ta-Nehisi Coates. In his 2014 Atlantic article “The Case for Reparations,” Coates focused on racist housing policies in Chicago that severely limited black people’s ability to build wealth through homeownership. Coates’s decision to build the case for reparations on twentieth-century racist policies broadened public understanding of the historic injustices that black people have faced in the United States, and about ways the country could make amends.
Despite common misconceptions, the definition of reparations was never limited to cash payments for descendants of slaves. As Robin D.G. Kelley wrote in Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination, “By looking at the reparations campaign in the United States as a social movement, we discover that it was never entirely, or even primarily, about money. The demand for reparations was about social justice, reconciliation, reconstructing the internal life of black America, and eliminating institutional racism.” There isn’t uniform agreement on what reparations might look like among reparations advocates, but today’s activists are deliberately drawing on that social movement history as they think about how to address a broad range of injustices against black Americans.
Just as prison workers don’t enjoy the rights other workers expect, neither do workers in street-based survival economies. Both kinds of workers are subject to unsafe, coercive, and even violent working conditions, and often get harassed with little or no chance of legal redress. And the drug and sex trades in particular funnel disproportionate numbers of poor black people into the legal system.
Black women, particularly trans women, who sell or trade sex are especially targeted by law enforcement. One 2014 study documented that black defendants in Brooklyn made up 94 percent of those charged with “loitering for the purposes of prostitution.” In addition to arrest, they are subject to rape and extortion of sexual acts, perpetrated by both johns and police officers. Retroactive decriminalization of consensual sex work would be a huge step towards recognizing sex work as work and protecting those who do it. Sex workers would then be able to demand access to healthcare, organize for their safety, and know that their families would not be punished for living off the proceeds of sex work.
The criminalization of the street-based drug trade has been the primary driver of mass incarceration for decades. Today, the number of people locked up for drug offenses is more than the number of those incarcerated for all crimes in the 1970s; nearly 40 percent of those incarcerated for drug crimes today are black. As a political strategy, the war on drugs was conceived in explicitly racist terms. As John Ehrlichman, President Richard Nixon’s former domestic policy advisor, admitted in a 1994 interview with Harper’s reporter Dan Baum: “The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. . . . We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin. And then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. . . . Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”
At least one state is taking steps to reverse this decades-long injustice. In 2014, California voters supported an initiative to reduce certain drug possession offenses to misdemeanors, which reduced the incarcerated population by 8,700. In 2016, they voted to legalize marijuana.
The looming end of the war on drugs could provide an economic opportunity for those who served time for acts that will now be entirely legal. In California, the city of Oakland passed an attempt at what we might think of as drug war reparations. The equity permit program allocates half of all permits for medical marijuana dispensaries to people who have served time for marijuana violations in the last ten years or lived in a neighborhood where the highest number of arrests for possession or sale of the drug took place. Building on this model, local and state governments—and businesses that have profited from prison labor—could sponsor people once imprisoned for drug crimes to set up marijuana dispensaries.
Decriminalizing the drug and sex trades would not only ensure that workers in these economies aren’t arrested for working, but also allow for the accrued savings to be reinvested into reparations for those most impacted by the criminalization of this work. For instance, savings could be used to address deficiencies in housing, employment, health services, and drug treatment needs, many of which push these workers into the survival economy in the first place. In short, ending mass incarceration will require policies that actually eliminate poverty rather than just make it more bearable.
Another approach gaining in popularity is that of a universal basic income, or UBI, an unconditional and guaranteed minimum livable income. In his contribution to the August 2016 Vision for Black Lives policy document, political scientist Dorian Warren has proposed a variant of UBI he calls “Universal PLUS.” It would include a pro-rated additional amount for black Americans over a specified period of time, funded by revenue saved from decriminalization and divestment from the prison industrial complex. This type of UBI, argues Warren, would function as a form of reparations. “All would benefit,” he writes, “but those who suffered through slavery and continuing racism would benefit slightly more.”
For black lives to truly matter, they must benefit from a secure and just economy. Prison laborers as well as criminalized workers in the drug and sex trades live at the intersections of multiple forms of oppression. The struggle to ensure their labor rights is inextricably tied to the struggle to dismantle the prison industrial complex. The labor and anti-criminalization movements must bring them from the margins of the workforce into the center of the fight for economic justice.
Janaé E. Bonsu is an activist and PhD student based in Chicago. She serves as the National Public Policy Chair of BYP100.