A labor strike in prisons in more than 24 states began on Sept. 9, on the 45th anniversary of the Attica prison uprising, but it has yet to get any mention in The New York Times, The Washington Post, NBC News, ABC News, MSNBC, Fox News, CNN or NPR. Only a handful of national news organizations, including Buzzfeed and The Wall Street Journal have covered the strike, but that’s where mainstream coverage stops.
Now in its third week, the strike encompasses 20 prisons in Alabama, California, Florida, Indiana, Louisiana, Michigan, New York, Ohio, South Carolina and Washington that are still participating in hunger strikes, marches and work stoppages. According to the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee, at one point approximately 20,000 prisoners were on strike. Protest does not come without punishment—prisoners have been confined to their cells and denied phone access, and organizers have been placed in the very same solitary confinement cells that they were protesting against.
Media co-chair of the IWOC Azzurra Crispino told Democracy Now the following:
Less than two days ago … at Kinross unit in Michigan … The warden had come out and was speaking to the inmates, over 400 of them, which had peacefully marched in the yard. But after the warden left, basically, a riot repression team came in and dragged prisoners out of their showers and out of their cells, zip-tied their arms behind their back and threw them out in the yard and left them out there for five to six hours in the rain without any access to bathroom facilities. So the repression that prisoners are facing around the country for having participated in the strike is real, and it’s very severe. So right now we’re really focused on responding in order to help get the word out and get people to call into those units, so that we can help to support those who are being repressed, as well as to continue supporting strike workers, whether that’s people who are continuing to be on work stoppages and rolling work stoppages or continuing to hunger strike.
The terms of the protest are to demand better conditions and the right to unionize, to rebel against inadequate health care, solitary confinement, the amount of pay for the work done by prisoners and physical mistreatment of inmates by staff.
Pay levels for prisoner workers range from 74 cents a day to $3.34 a day, and many prisoners feel that the pay rate is far too low for the amount of work that is expected of them.
Prison guards in Alabama’s William C. Holman Correctional Facility have joined in on the strike, partially in solidarity with the inmates, and partially due to personal safety concerns. As with most prisons, Holman is understaffed and overcrowded, leaving correctional officers with a ratio of far more inmates per person than is manageable. Oftentimes there may be 17 officers overseeing 1,000 inmates, reports TakePart.
Given the scale of the prison strikes and the reasonable demands to fix the often deplorable, inhumane conditions faced by prisoners, one would expect that the strikes would be getting more attention from major news outlets, so why has there been so little coverage? One could argue that it’s simply been overshadowed by election coverage and other major national and world events, but that’s simply not the case. In the modern era of 24/7 news coverage, it’s inexcusable that such a major nationwide event has been largely unaddressed. So the question remains, why?
The answer most likely rests in money. Major sponsors of corporate media such as AT&T, Bank of America, Chevron, Eli Lilly, GEICO, McDonald’s and Walmart all use prison labor to their benefit. Verizon, another company that benefits from prison labor, owns Yahoo and The Huffington Post. So it would certainly be a conflict of interest for these corporate sponsors to partially fund the coverage of the appalling and abysmal conditions prisoners their companies benefit from must face. An irrefutable profit motive stands in the way of honest coverage of this very serious issue of human rights.
Another issue that applies in many other oft-overlooked news stories is the lack of violence in the majority of the strikes. On the whole, the strikes have been peaceful, civil and conscientious. There’s little shock value that a content-driven news world can derive from a peaceful protest, and rather than focus on the issues themselves, it seems that most corporate media simply chooses to ignore the strikes entirely.
The decision to only cover more violent protests creates a feedback loop—it teaches a pattern of violence as a means to an end, a necessary tool for acknowledgment in a media system that largely overlooks the plight of the peaceful.
The multifaceted, endlessly frustrating, endlessly fucked-up system that is private prison incarceration and the prison system in general continuously underlines the need for immediate and extensive prison reform. Prisoner strikes emphasize the need even further—protest does not come without punishment, and those who willingly protest with the consequences in mind are obviously in a place of desperation.