“We are men! We are not beasts and we do not intend to be beaten or driven as such.” 21-year-old Elliott James “L.D.” Barkley declared, before being shot in the back by security guards after an unsuccessful prison riot.
Elliott, and a thousand other inmates set out to bring to light the “ruthless brutalization and disregard” for life that hundreds of thousands of inmates experienced in prisons across the United States.
After taking over the Attica Correctional Facility in Attica, N.Y., along with 42 hostages, the inmates drafted a list of demands. The manifesto outlined 27 demands, including better medical treatment, fair visitation rights, an end to physical brutality, better sanitation, improved food quality, and one set of rules for the state among numerous other demands. After four days, the negotiations broke down, prompting the situational commander to order the prison to be retaken with force.
Amid a flurry of tear gas and weapons fire from New York State Police troopers, 43 inmates and hostages were killed but the prison was retaken. Vigilante beatings and abuse took place for days after as prison officers “punished” inmates.
The Attica Prison Riot happened in 1971. 45 years later, inmates are still fighting for their rights.
What happened at Attica was, as Barkley said “but the sound before the fury of those who are oppressed.”
Today, instead of one riot at one prison, there are riots, strikes, and hunger strikes going on in over 29 prisons in 12 states. The biggest prison strike in US history is happening across the country, and it’s all about unjust labor conditions.
The state of prison labor in the United States is one of abuse and perverted incentives.
For starters, prisoners are required to work if physically able. Paul Wright, the editor for Prison Legal News says, “Typically prisoners are required to work, and if they refuse to work, they can be punished by having their sentences lengthened and being placed in solitary confinement.”
And even if inmates willing work they get little to nothing from it. Prisoners can earn anywhere between 12 to 40 cents an hour for work in federal prisons. In Texas, Arkansas, and Georgia, prisoners aren’t paid anything for their work.
Then there’s the issue of where this work gets contracted out to. Some of it is prison work, like cooking, washing, repairs, etc. Prisoners get paid little for this work. Other forms of prison work involve contracts with companies in a multitude of industries, from agriculture to telecommunications. These contracted out prison jobs pay significantly below the market average, and aren’t subject to many of the labor regulations that the private sector enjoys.
Most people don’t think of prisoners as a vulnerable population, [with] high degrees of mental illness and social isolation. It’s an easy population to exploit physically, labor-wise and by every other means.
– Paul Wright, an editor at Prison Legal News
Inmates lack workplace safety standards; the federal prison system has got in trouble before for hiding dangerous working conditions. Despite earning little to nothing for their labor, inmates also have deductions and fees that come out of their paychecks. Up to 80% of inmate wages go to taxes and deductions, and if an inmate wants to participate in a work-release program some states cover the program cost with a percentage of their wages. Using inmate wages to cover these programs and other deductions has resulted in some inmates going into debt by the time they’re released.
While inmates get the short stick when it comes to prison labor, corporations definitely get the benefits. Companies can get up to 40% back in tax reimbursements for paying inmates. The army, required by law to produce uniforms in the US, has shifted a lot of its labor to prisons. Nearly a million prisoners also make office furniture, body armor, textiles, shoes, clothing, and work in call centers, slaughterhouses, and take hotel reservations. Professors Steve Fraser and Joshua Freeman, back in 2012, compared current prison labor to the sweatshops of the industrial age.
Rarely can you find workers so pliable, easy to control, stripped of political rights, and subject to martial discipline at the first sign of recalcitrance — unless, that is, you traveled back to the nineteenth century when convict labor was commonplace nationwide.
Since prisoners are prohibited from unionizing, or asking for better wages and working conditions it makes them the perfect group to get cheap labor from. They’re not considered employees by courts, which is great for corporations who don’t have to supply them with vacation pay, workers’ compensation insurance, unemployment benefits, strikes, or healthcare. If prisoners refuse to work, they’re placed in solitary confinement and could receive other punishments. Two Californian prisoners sued both their employer and the prison for putting them in solitary confinement after they refused to work in unsafe working conditions. Lackadaisical labor rights has allowed the prison labor industry to employ over three quarters of a million prisoners. That’s larger than any Fortune 500 company, except for General Motors.
37 states allow contracting out prison labor to private companies, allowing numerous companies to profit from this cheap, some say abusive labor outlet. IBM, Boeing, Motorola, Microsoft, and AT&T are just a few of said companies who employ prison labor. Much of it has been at the expense of private sector workers, ditched for cheaper more obedient prison workers. Lockhart Technologies closed then relocated 150 jobs in its Austin, Texas plant to a prison where inmates did the work for minimum wage.
Rock bottom wages, unsafe working conditions, forced work, and no avenue for resolving workplace wrongs has led inmates to strike throughout the past century.
In “Rethinking Working-Class Struggle through the Lens of the Carceral State: Toward a Labor History of Inmates and Guards,” Heather Ann Thompson tells the history of prison labor from the antebellum south up till the 21st century. After World War II, prisoners held strikes throughout the country against working conditions and wages.
In 1947, more than 500 inmates at the Danbury Federal Reformatory in Connecticut conducted a work stoppage, 69 Wisconsin prisoners held an eight- hour sit- down strike in Waupun prison, and inmates at Auburn prison in upstate New York also remained ‘in their cells instead of going to work.’ (page 21)
In 1949, 600 prisoners went on a sit-down strike in Cleveland, Ohio, demanding that the warden negotiate with them over their workplace complaints. 1950 saw 570 prisoners in Great Meadows prison in Comstock, N.Y. held a ten hour long strike. In 1951, prisoners in both Buford, Ga. and Angola, La. engaged in mass mutilations to protest long work hours. Prisoner protests continued regularly throughout the decades, moving into the 60s and 70s, becoming increasingly more violent.
On September 2, 1960, 102 inmates at the Minnesota state prison held a fifteen- hour overnight sit- down strike on that facility’s ball diamond, and, by 1968, more than 850 inmates were striking over higher wages in Richmond, Virginia. In 1970, a particularly well- organized strike of more than 450 inmate- workers erupted in the metal shop of the Attica State Correctional Facility because they were forced to work every day in the prison factory but still did not have enough money to afford necessities such as soap. (page 22)
And the trend hasn’t stopped. Prison strikes happened in Texas last April, and in Alabama last May. September saw a concerted effort among thousands of prisoners across several states and dozens of prisons to end “modern-day slavery.” The mass anti-prison work strike involved hunger strikes, refusals to work, sit-ins, and peaceful marches.
“There are probably 20,000 prisoners on strike right now, at least, which is the biggest prison strike in history, but the information is really sketchy and spotty,” said Ben Turk of Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee.
The problem is, it’s difficult to get up-to-date information on who’s striking and where. This is due to prison officials’ broad discretion on what details to report. They control the flow of information coming out of their prisons, making it hard for activists and the media to properly report, much less hear about the strikes.
Leaders of the strikes were sent to solitary confinement and had their communication privileges restricted a month before the strikes began. In their manifesto, the leaders of the national prison strike describe the punishments they receive for not doing their appointed tasks to the prison officials liking.
Overseers watch over our every move, and if we do not perform our appointed tasks to their liking, we are punished. 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.
The manifesto also highlights the persistent force behind prison labor; mass incarceration and high sentences for non-violent crimes. The overwhelming majority of articles discussing this topic begin with the same exact statistics: America has the highest incarceration rate in the world, and the majority of the world’s prison population. They give the black-and-white “outline” version of the prison situation in America, without delving into any of the underlying reasons or factors that color in the full picture. They don’t bring a full perspective to the table, opting to just regurgitate the same statistic we’ve heard time and again.
America’s high incarceration rate isn’t merely a good or bad factor. Alone it’s worrisome, especially when our crime levels are comparable to other industrialized, internally stable nations. The perverse incentives, and dangerous results of our high incarceration rate are the real deciding factors.
Privatized prisons, coupled with a correctional work program for inmates in federal prisons run completely off of revenue generated from inmate-made products has led to the rise of prison labor. Privatized prisons are an obvious incentive problem. They receive a certain amount per prisoner from the government, but with a large captive workforce, it makes sense to employ them.
The federal correctional work program, known as Federal Prison Industries (or, UNICOR and FPI) is a subset of the Department of Justice, but receives no funds from Congress. The company has been financial unsound, going back a decade. Operating at a loss from 2009 through 2015.
Despite the low cost of labor and many of its factories operating twenty four hours a day, UNICOR is still finding it hard to turn a profit. The company blames it on economic downturn, reduced budgets of its federal agency customers, a reduction in military spending, and changes in laws. The downside of their financial downturn is that they’ve used it as an excuse to reach out to private sector customers. In an annual UNICOR report, the “repatriation program” is described as the result of “the volatile nature of the changes effecting Federal Prison Industries with the government sector.” Therefore, “emphasis has been placed on exploring more opportunities with commercial customers.”
In a reference to the age old fear of moving jobs overseas, The Bureau of Prisons claimed UNICOR has manufacturing contracts with over 30 companies on jobs that would’ve gone overseas. The irony that they’re providing a cheap alternative to American labor seems to be lost on them. Apparently, it’s not taking jobs away from Americans when those Americans are incarcerated and paid less than the minimum wage.
Yes, these Americans have committed crimes and been found guilty; that doesn’t mean they can be treated as slave labor for political and economic gains.
For supporters of moving jobs back from overseas, prison labor is another threat to that goal. Making products with cheap labor should be condemned regardless of whether it’s Chinese sweatshops, or American prisons.
Proponents of “law and order” should also be skeptical about prison labor. It’s merely another perverted incentive to increase quotas and sentencing laws to maintain a large prison workforce. This trickles down from prisons, to courts, to police departments.
The phasing out of the Justice Department’s use of private prisons will go to help this. But it’s merely one facet of this issue. The drug war, harsh sentences for non-violent crimes, and the three strikes law all go make up the web of perverse incentives.
Responding to the issue of prison labor with “they’re criminals, they’re not supposed to have comparable rights to non-incarcerated Americans,” isn’t helpful. In the end, unjust prison labor conditions fuel bigger problems in the American justice system.