Why Labor Is at the Heart of the Latest Big Prison Strike

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America’s prison-labor system has created both a rallying point for protestors and an opportunity for them to make a difference by refusing to work.

By Francie Diep

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Prisoners who work for Colorado Correctional Industries will train your dog, break your horse, and raise goats for your milk and cheese. (Photo: Barry Staver)

Over the past several weeks, thousands of inmates across the United States have been on strike, stopping work in jobs such as license plate-making and, furniture-building as a protest to the low labor wages paid to inmates. Although it’s difficult to verify the size of the strike, activists say it’s one of the biggest in American history, with 20,000 inmates in at least 24 prisons spread throughout 23 states, according to the Los Angeles Times. The inmates participating in the strikesoppose what they say are poor living conditions and unfair prison labor practices, including little to no wages and punishments for those who refuse to work.

When well run, work programs can provide inmates with job experience, a chance to socialize with others, and the opportunity to spend time outdoors. But, as Graeme Wood reported in Pacific Standard’s March/April 2015 issue, prison jobs are also often exploitative:

[Labor historian Alex] Lichtenstein describes today’s largest state prison-work programs, such as those in Texas, as essentially “enormous corporations” operating with slave-like labor. The state itself gobbles up most of the fruits of that labor (a so-called “state-use” system of prison labor, whereby the items produced are used by the government). The vast majority of prisoners work only within the prison system, laundering each other’s clothes, cooking and serving food to each other, mowing lawns and serving as firefighters at their own facilities. They often do work for other parts of the state and federal government as well, for example by building furniture for state offices. For these services, the inmates typically earn 50 cents or less per hour, but often much less. These in-state systems face no federal regulation.

Wood writes that “after taxes, fees, mandatory savings, and money confiscated for restitution or other court-ordered payments, few prisoners receive more than $3 per hour.” And bargaining for better wages is especially tough because, as Lichtenstein explained to Wood, prison laborers can’t join a union, and are not subject to protective labor legislation.

Many Americans have bought the fruits of prisoners’ labor, which typically aren’t labeled as such by the time they hit store shelves. Most famously, Whole Foods used to be the top buyer of tilapia farmed at a prison-labor complex in Colorado, as Wood reported. But once the news spread, customers complained, leading Whole Foods to announce it would stop buying fish and goat cheese husbanded by the incarcerated.

Inmate protests — targeting issues such as the use of solitary confinement, the elimination of GED programs, and high canteen prices — have been on the rise recently, the Intercept reports. But it was prison labor that galvanized inmates into these protests. In a call to action, strike organizers called forced prison work “slavery” and noted, “They cannot run these facilities without us.”

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