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Prisoners Across America Are on Strike. Here's Why You Should Care

Politics Features Prison Strike
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There’s a fight happening in America, although you might not know it. Starting on Aug. 21, across 17 states, American inmates have engaged in a Nationwide Prison Strike. The NPS ends on Sept. 9, but the cause will march on. The battle for prison reform is a noble one. And necessary. The word is spreading. According to the Times, a protest in North Carolina:

came in support of a nationwide prisoner strike to call attention to the low inmate wages, decrepit facilities and harsh sentences that organizers say plague prison populations across the country. Though it is unclear how widespread such demonstrations have been, activists said they had shown a new ability to reach inmates across state lines at a time when prison unrest and in-custody deaths are frequently in the news.

A great deal of the activism focuses on unjust economic exploitation, which:

can range from nothing at all in states like South Carolina and Texas to, at best, a few dollars for a day of hard labor in other places. Prisoners frequently refer to it as “slave labor,” and organizers of this year’s strike have called for inmates to be paid the prevailing wage for the cleaning, cooking and other work they perform behind bars. ... The current pay leaves many prisoners struggling to afford phone calls to family members or toothpaste and deodorant from the commissary, experts said. Even after years of hard work inside, they frequently have little or nothing saved to help with rent or other necessities when they are released.

What do the prisoners want? They’ve told us, through the Jailhouse Lawyers. They have ten demands. In their words:

1. Immediate improvements to the conditions of prisons and prison policies that recognize the humanity of imprisoned men and women.

2. An immediate end to prison slavery. All persons imprisoned in any place of detention under United States jurisdiction must be paid the prevailing wage in their state or territory for their labor.

3. The Prison Litigation Reform Act must be rescinded, allowing imprisoned humans a proper channel to address grievances and violations of their rights.

4. The Truth in Sentencing Act and the Sentencing Reform Act must be rescinded so that imprisoned humans have a possibility of rehabilitation and parole. No human shall be sentenced to Death by Incarceration or serve any sentence without the possibility of parole.

5. An immediate end to the racial overcharging, over-sentencing, and parole denials of Black and brown humans. Black humans shall no longer be denied parole because the victim of the crime was white, which is a particular problem in southern states.

6. An immediate end to racist gang enhancement laws targeting Black and brown humans.

7. No imprisoned human shall be denied access to rehabilitation programs at their place of detention because of their label as a violent offender.

8. State prisons must be funded specifically to offer more rehabilitation services.

9. Pell grants must be reinstated in all US states and territories.

10. The voting rights of all confined citizens serving prison sentences, pretrial detainees, and so-called “ex-felons” must be counted. Representation is demanded. All voices count!

Granted, the prison-industrial complex has entered its golden years in the Trump era.

But this nightmare existed before the current Chief Executive and his famous child-jails. Across this land, prisoners are denied the most basic human rights. They are held hostage to a system which exploits them for profit, and is indifferent to their humanity. The essential problem of the American prison system is a basic one. Our system stops considering prisoners as human the minute they walk across the penitentiary threshold.

From that moment forth, they are so much wheat to be threshed: McDonald’s uses them. Victoria’s Secret uses them. Walmart uses them. It is a small jump from iron chains to supply chains, but Americans do not hesitate. Everyone gets in on the action. The prosecutor decides how to charge a suspect, and holds prison over them. The investor decides what kind of prison labor to use. The state legislator decides what industries to invite into the system. The judge is forced to apply unfair sentences to recidivists.

At every turn, prisons mean profit. And I mean at every turn: as Christopher Petrella wrote two years ago, “since just 2014 $800 million in California’s prison bonds has been underwritten and purchased by Morgan Stanley, Goldman Sachs, and Barclays.”

As Vox reported:

Prison labor issues recently received attention in California, where inmates have been voluntarily recruited to fight the state’s record wildfires — for the paltry pay of just $1 an hour plus $2 per day. But the practice of using prison inmates for cheap or free labor is fairly widespread in the US, due to an exemption in the 13th Amendment, which abolished chattel slavery but allows involuntary servitude as part of a punishment for a crime.

For those of you tempted to @ Paste with the question “Why does this matter,” I’ll remind you that the number of prisoners is not small.

Between 1980 and 2015, the Republic cranked up the number of jailed from 500,000 to 2.2 million. In 2018, to quote from the Prison Policy site:

The American criminal justice system holds almost 2.3 million people in 1,719 state prisons, 102 federal prisons, 1,852 juvenile correctional facilities, 3,163 local jails, and 80 Indian Country jails as well as in military prisons, immigration detention facilities, civil commitment centers, state psychiatric hospitals, and prisons in the U.S. territories.

This alone does not capture the scale of the problem—what Prison Policy calls “the enormous churn” of jailing. Nor does it address the “far larger universe” of people whose lives are affected by the prison-industrial complex: “Every year, 626,000 people walk out of prison gates, but people go to jail 10.6 million times each year. Jail churn is particularly high because most people in jails have not been convicted.” People of color are over-represented in prison populations. African-Americans are thirteen percent of the population, and make up forty percent of incarcerated Americans.

Let’s restate the big number:

Two. Point. Three. million.

Half a million for drug offense alone. A majority of those offenses are nonviolent.

We can either claim to be a free country, or jail 2.3 million people. We don’t get to do both.

The whole blue world’s imprisoned population totals around nine million. Half of those people are held in Russia, China, and the United States. Not the best company to keep, is it? In Russia, the incarceration rate is 411 people per hundred thousand. America is sitting pretty at 655, which allegedly beats North Korea by a square mile of daylight. We have a twentieth of the global population and a fifth of the world’s prisoners.

And we haven’t forgotten the kids, either. We’ve got 40,750 juveniles in detention, too. Around 8,500 youth are locked up for what are called “technical violations” of their parole requirements. That’s right: not new offenses. Just breaking some small rule.

Where the next generation is concerned, you can’t say we don’t think about the future. As the NAACP reminds us, “spending on prisons and jails has increased at triple the rate of spending on Pre K-12 public education in the last thirty years.” Watch what I do, not what I say, as the three-card Monte dealer told the seminary student.

These numbers are unheard of in a wealthy country, by the way. Widely unheard of. Astronomically unheard of. Look at the rates for Switzerland (82 per 100,000), Iceland (38), and Japan (45). Those are the nations with the lowest crime rates on Earth! What are they going to do with all those prospective detainees roaming the street? Apparently, they’ll do just fine.

We know that prisons don’t stop crime. According to The Hill, “between 2010 and 2015, the nation’s imprisonment rate declined by 8.4 percent, according to an analysis by the Pew Charitable Trusts. Over the same period, 35 states have seen their prison populations decline, and the rate of violent and property crime is down nearly 15 percent.”

As the Vera Institute of Justice put it:

The Prison Paradox summarizes research about the relationship between incarceration rates and crime rates, finding that since 2000, the increased use of jails and prisons accounted for nearly zero percent of the overall reduction in crime.

So why bother with jails?

One explanation for the prison system is that it’s an update of our oldest tradition: forcing African-Americans to labor on the cheap.

The simpler answer is that prisons are big money for every powerful interest of the American economic system. Finding the cheapest possible labor is the endgame of late-stage capitalism, and it doesn’t get much cheaper than jail work.

Politically, the prison-industrial complex accomplishes several right-wing goals at once: it perpetuates white supremacy; it ensures the economic caste system; it enriches private prisons, manufacturers, the state; it gives the cops and courts something to do; it provides the only available jobs to de-industrialized communities. And, of course, it unconstitutionally strips the vote from American citizens.

Most injustices in this country are overlaid with a thin patina of propriety. Morning dress, you understand, in case the neighbors see.

But what we do to jailed folks in this country is beyond the pale. When you go through the bars, you become an un-person. And that means an entire system exists to prey upon you.

Our country is so dedicated to liberty that we economize it. We are so in love with justice that we play the miser with it. Indeed, we are so fond of hard work that we limit the number of people who can receive fair wages.

Why not make the whole country a prison, while you’re at it? It would save a great deal of money, and be more honest too. We’re not just keeping a nation of prisoners—we’re raising generations of jailers. Turn the key, bolt the door: until we change our ways, we’re all locked in here together.

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