Prisoners in dozens of correctional facilities around the nation launched a labor strike Sept. 9, a day that, appropriately, was the 45th anniversary of New York’s Attica prison rebellion. The U.S. incarcerates the greatest number of people in the world, and most of them are expected to work inside the prisons that hold them, usually for well below minimum wage.
Inmates say the system is akin to slavery and hence unconstitutional. In fact, the prison system in some states is financially dependent on the underpaid labor of inmates. In stopping their work, prisoners in states like Alabama, Ohio, Mississippi and Texas are risking serious forms of retaliation in order to call attention to their exploitation.
Amazingly, one inmate, who goes by the name of Bennu Hannibal Ra-Sun, obtained a cellphone and is giving interviews from within the isolation unit where he is being held at the William E. Donaldson Correctional Facility in Bessemer, Ala. Ra-Sun, whose birth name is Melvin Ray, is a member of the prison-activist organization Free Alabama Movementand has become a spokesman for the nationwide prison labor strike. In a video interviewon my program, “Rising Up With Sonali,” Ra-Sun told me that in addition to the work stoppage, the strike is taking other forms, including “protesting by boycotting the canteen [and] by hunger-striking.” Because of the challenges of communicating within and between prisons, it is nearly impossible to estimate how large the strike is unless state prison authorities issue statements that accurately reflect reality. Ra-Sun estimates that it could take a month or two to determine how widespread and effective the strike has been.
There are two broad types of labor inside prisons. First is the required maintenance of the prisons themselves, which Ra-Sun said includes “laundry, painting, plumbing.” In addition, many prisons have factories that produce all sorts of things, from McDonald’s uniforms to Victoria’s Secret lingerie. Ra-Sun explained that “depending upon which prison you’re at, you could be making car parts, furniture, license plates. You could be running a goat farm, poultry farm, fish pond or recycling plant, making computer parts, hamburger patties or more.”
U.S. prisons create products that garner $500 million a yearin sales and pay inmates as little as 23 cents an hour. Some of the work is hazardous and involves exposure to toxic materials.
Ra-Sun sees this exploitation of prison labor as a violation of the 13th Amendment, which says, “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” He cited an anecdote about a fellow prisoner who, after working for eight years at one job, was earning a mere 50 cents an hour.
Perversely, the government sells its prison labor program as beneficial to inmates by casting it as a jobs-training program. UNICOR, the government agency previously known as the Federal Prison Industries program, says it is “dedicated to employing inmates across the U.S. and providing them the job skills needed to succeed in life.” The agency website, which also touts its products as “American made” and “eco-friendly,” is chock full of rosy images of smiling inmates in clean work environments and is geared toward businesses looking for cheap labor. In only one instance does it address the appallingly low pay, but only within the context of possible “unfair competitive advantage” over other businesses. UNICOR’s answer is:
Inmates are paid considerably less than minimum wage, but this is offset by the labor intensive use of a large number of inmates, additional costs for inmate training and staff supervision, as well as efficiency constraints associated with a prison work environment.In other words, the cost to the state of incarcerating a prisoner is deducted from his or her wages. In many cases, after fees, fines, court costs and housing costs are deducted from a prisoner’s meager pay, there is literally nothing left, and the labor is not compensated at all. This appears to fit the definition of slave labor quite well.
Ra-Sun had an eloquent explanation for how prisoners end up participating in a system that is so exploitative:
Something has to happen to make a person work for free. That person has to be denied all access to education. An educated man and a thinking man is not going to go for it. There has to be brutality. That person has to understand that he has no rights, no voice, no one to turn to. The courts are not going to be there, the Department of Justice is not going to be there. These tools of control—the force, the police brutality, the solitary confinement, the inhumane living conditions—these are all part of the breaking process to get you to the point where you’ll work for free.In addition to the inherent unfairness of paying prisoners paltry or no wages, there is a racial-justice aspect to this story. Black and brown Americans are significantly overrepresented in the criminal justice system, all the way from first contact with police to sentencing biases in courtrooms. Of the country’s 2.2 million incarcerated Americans, 37 percent are African-American and 22 percent are Latino, compared with the general population, which is 13 percent black and 17 percent Latino.
The history of American enslavement of African-Americans is extremely relevant to the conditions of prison labor today. According to Ra-Sun, “In the streets when you see police officers gunning down black people ... it is to control these communities. Those that they don’t kill in the streets, they kill behind these walls in prison.” He added, “They have a license to repress, suppress and oppress our communities, and then they capitalize on it” by exploiting their labor.
In early 2015, the Free Alabama Movement published a treatise entitled “Let the Crops Rot in the Fields,” which the group described as “a call for new strategy in the national movement against mass incarceration and prison slavery.” The idea is that ending mass incarceration overall requires applying economic pressure to the economic underpinnings of the system. The document outlines a three-pronged strategy that includes work stoppages, increasing public awareness of prison labor by leafleting at stores where prison-made products are sold and encouraging nonprisoners to hold solidarity protests and rallies outside prisons.
Political organizing is a difficult enough task for those of us who have escaped the clutches of the criminal justice system. But imagine trying to organize masses of people separated by bars and walls, with little to no access to digital communication. Activists like Ra-Sun are paying a heavy personal price for organizing prison labor. He explained that he was picked out as a leader by prison authorities two weeks before the strike was launched and placed in solitary confinement, where he spoke to me using a contraband cellphone. “When they brought me back here, they took away all of my books, all of my reading materials, newspapers and hygiene and personal effects,” he told me. “I’m in total isolation, they don’t want me talking to anyone. ... They don’t want me being able to communicate about the struggle we have going on.”
The retaliation that prisoners are facing for protesting is all too real. But as Ra-Sun pointed out, “These are nonviolent, peaceful protests. We’re not advocating any violence. We’re not harming anyone.” His mastery of the Constitution and Bill of Rights was impressive as he rattled off his First Amendment rights to free speech word for word.
Forty-five years ago, prisoners in Attica, N.Y., rose up and demanded their rights. Their demands were humble: “Better nutrition, some educational opportunities and access to more than one shower per week.” Ra-Sun says that for prisoners like him, the anniversary of the Attica rebellion is “not a holiday, not something we’re celebrating.” Rather it is “part of our legacy and our struggle ... and a reminder to everyone of the resistance and the spirit that we must have in order for us to change our conditions."