As wildfires rage across California, some of the people risking their lives to fight them are paid only a few dollars a day. These workers stand little chance of ever earning the $74,000 average salary California firefighters generally receive. While it may be hard to believe there’s an entire class of workers who are paid sweatshop wages in the United States, that’s the reality for 2.3 million incarcerated workers.
Slave wages are just one of the many reasons why incarcerated individuals in state, federal, and immigration prisons around the US are going on strike from August 21st to September 9th. The strike was organized in response to deadly violence at Lee Correctional Institution in South Carolina earlier this year, a result of the prison’s abysmal living conditions.
In an interview with Shadowproof, an individual incarcerated at Lee spoke of the prison’s dehumanizing environment. “We need open yards again, not just enclosed rec yards, we need these open rec yards again, where prisoners can move. We need prisoners to start being treated like humans.”
This month’s strikes are just the most recent in a long history of using work stoppages to resist abhorrent prison conditions. But they’re reflective of a shifting approach to organized prison protest, Paul Wright, editor of Prison Legal News, says. Up until ten years ago, strikes generally happened on a prison-by-prison basis, Wright told Inequality.org. But new technology makes it possible to coordinate nationwide resistance.
A few decades ago, strikes were organized through phone calls and letter writing. But now organizers are able to take advantage of social media with contraband cellphones and the help of outside organizers. “I remember trying to organize statewide strikes in the 90’s and how difficult that was,” Wright says. “I think that a lot of the barriers are a lot lower now than they were 15 years ago.” This explains the increase in coordinated national actions. It’s how folks were able to organize the largest prison strike in the U.S. to date in 2016.
And now, in only four months, incarcerated organizers and outside allies are putting together an act of resistance that they hope will top their recent record. Organizers have a list of ten demands, which include the need for prompt improvement of prison conditions and policies. They also call for the “immediate end to prison slavery,” which is legal thanks to a constitutional loophole.
Language in the 13th Amendment outlaws slavery except “as a punishment for a crime,” which is how the Prison Industry Enhancement Certification Program was created in 1970. In theory, the program was meant to establish work opportunities for incarcerated people so that they could both earn money and develop skills, increasing their chances of getting a good job upon release. However, this is hardly the case. These work programs teach few relevant skills and, on average, pay less than $1 an hour, if they do pay at all.
Earned income is essential for folks on the inside because it allows them to buy necessities not provided by the prison, like soap, calling cards, and tampons. Incarcerated people are also required to offset the cost of their imprisonment, as a report from the Brennan Center for Justice details. The U.S. criminal system is filled with fees that shift imprisonment costs from the government onto the people accused of crimes, often leaving them with piles of debt when they leave prison. Fair wages during incarceration are doubly important due to the stark barriers to employment upon release.