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Jen Boynton headshot

Nationwide, Prisoners Strike Over Slave Wages, Living Conditions

By Jen Boynton

A nationwide strike of inmates in 40 facilities in 24 states kicked off Friday morning. The strike was coordinated by IWW Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee (IWOC) according to an announcement from the the organization. The strike comes on the 45th anniversary of the prisoner protest and takeover at Attica Correctional Facility in Attica, NY. In a statement, the IWOC likens prisons to modern slave holding pens, where prisoners are forced to work for little or no pay.

They may have replaced the whip with pepper spray, but many of the other torments remain: isolation, restraint positions, stripping off our clothes and investigating our bodies as though we are animals.

In federal prisons, prisoners earn 12 to 40 cents an hour and in Texas, Arkansas and Georgia they earn nothing at all. Jobs include everything from groundskeeping to janitorial services to preparing and serving meals. In addition to maintaining the prison, common jobs also include labor to benefit private corporations from Walmart to Victoria's Secret. Prisoners even farm tilapia for Whole Foods and fight forest fires in California. Alongside these corporate jobs, which exist to bring in revenue for the contractors who run the prisons, prison conditions have weakened due to overcrowding, continued cost constraints and a general lack of care. In Louisiana, prisoners sued for the right to A/C after interior temperatures rose into the hundreds, resulting a myriad of health impacts. NPR recently chronicled the rise of ramen noodles as the currency of choice as prison officials limit the quantity and quality of food provided in cafeterias. A rash of deaths at Nassau County correctional facility brought that facility's private health contractor into the limelight for inadequate care. Basically, conditions are pretty terrible nationwide, even considering that we're talking about prison.

People are inclined to strike when they feel they have no other option and nothing to lose.

What's interesting about this strike is the coordinated effort between facilities, which seemingly took months to coordinate via contraband cell phones, sympathetic family on the outside, and secret social media accounts like this protected Twitter account from the Free Alabama Movement and its associated YouTube page, where video from a contraband cellphone captures an inmate describing prison officials' efforts to keep a food poisoning outbreak under wraps:


Despite months of preparation, the strike is still extremely risky. Cole Dorsey, an IWOC organizer in the Bay Area, explained to Mother Jones: "inmates could be put into solitary confinement or segregation, and could lose phone call and visiting privileges— in addition to the physical risks that come with participating in even the most non-violent protests. "

IOWC explains the reason for the strike:

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.

Prisoner strikes differ from facility to facility but may include work stoppages and other non-violent protest techniques.

The strike was coordinated with a number of protests outside prison walls in cities around the country, which are well-documented on social media. Unsurprisingly, news from inside the gates has been slow to emerge today -- many prisons will respond with a communications lockdown as a first line of defense to prisoner unrest. We do have confirmation of 35 workers striking from their jobs producing license plates at Holeman correctional facility in Alabama. A press release called it a "peaceful protest." Two Florida prisons are on lockdown and will be through the weekend.

It's going to be a little while before news from the inside filters out and we see what kind of impact, if any, this strike has on inmate's living and working conditions. We'll be watching. At the very least, the scope of the strike brings attention to a population whose wellbeing is often ignored.

Update 9/15: Follow along here at It's Going Down for a rolling update of prisons involved in the strike. 


Image credit: Bart Everson, Flickr

Jen Boynton headshot

Jen Boynton is the former Editor-in-Chief of TriplePundit. She has an MBA in Sustainable Management from the Presidio Graduate School and has helped organizations including SAP, PwC and Fair Trade USA with their sustainability communications messaging. She is based in San Diego, California. When she's not at work, she volunteers as a CASA (court appointed special advocate) for children in the foster care system. She enjoys losing fights with toddlers and eating toast scraps. She lives with her family in sunny San Diego.

Read more stories by Jen Boynton