By Chris Barton, Staff Writer
The 13th amendment of the U.S. constitution abolished slavery and forced labor, yet it left a glaring loophole: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”
What this means is that for those trapped in the sprawling U.S. prison system, forced labor is a fact of life. The U.S. hosts 25% of the world’s prison population, with 1 in every 23 Americans under some kind of ‘correctional control.’ Nearly 900,000 current inmates are forced to work, under threats of solitary confinement, being disallowed to see their family, or jail time. These people work for free, or for pennies an hour, though the value of their labor runs into the billions.
On September 9th (the 45th anniversary of the legendary Attica uprising) what is probably the country’s largest prison strike began, encompassing up to 50 prisons across 24 states. I say probably, because the information available on the strike is patchy; the American prison system is a bit of a black hole, with very little information getting in or out.
But undoubtedly, prisoners have gone on strike across the country, participating in labor strikes, peaceful protests, and hunger strikes. Although the strike has taken on different forms in different prisons, the basic reasons behind it remain the same. The organizers have proclaimed that:
“Slavery is alive and well in the prison system, but by the end of this year, it won’t be anymore. This is a call to end slavery in America. This call goes directly to the slaves themselves. We are not making demands or requests of our captors, we are calling ourselves to action. To every prisoner in every state and federal institution across this land, we call on you to stop being a slave, to let the crops rot in the plantation fields, to go on strike and cease reproducing the institutions of your confinement.”
The strike also calls out the Prison-Industrial Complex, the School to Prison Pipeline, and what is known as the ‘New Jim Crow‘ – the methods by which the prison system relegates black and brown Americans to life as second-class citizens.
As one might imagine, organizing a nation-wide strike while in prison is no easy task; in fact, it’s illegal. The prisoners have taken to contraband cell phones to organize via social media and garner support from outside organizations.
But so far, the response from outside the prison walls has been tepid at best. Protests in support of the strike have arisen in a dozen or so locations, but they have been small in scale. The strike has yet to make a splash in the American media, despite it’s historic nature and cultural relevancy.
Yet inside the prisons, reports are trickling in of guards putting prisons in lockdown, inmates in solitary confinement, and moving ringleaders to other prisons. The uprising is undoubtedly eliciting a response from the prison system, if not concessions to prisoners’ demands.
Both forced labor in prisons and prison strikes have a long and important history in the US. Sofie Dam’s illustrated overview of the prison strike offers some useful and interesting background and context to the current strike.
This prison strike is ongoing, and conclusions about its success cannot be reached yet. For up-to-date information, check out Mask Magazine’s ongoing coverage.