A Strike Against the New Jim Crow

Illustration by Nicole Rodrigues. Click for full version.

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. Last fall, 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 inte...

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