National prisoner labor strike spurs resistance to a new level

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On Sept. 9 prison inmates across the U.S. began a unprecedented nationwide labor strike to end slave labor in jails and prisons. This date commemorates the 45th anniversary of the Attica uprising, when a thousand prisoners seized control of the notorious New York prison and demanded political rights and better living conditions. After four days of tense negotiations, N.Y. Gov. Nelson Rockefeller sent in troops and hired thugs to retake Attica — 33 prisoners and 10 prison staffers lost their lives.

At press time the National Prison Strike “A Call to End Slavery in America” had work stoppages and hunger strikes in progress in at least 40 prisons in 24 states. In more than 60 cities supporters outside the walls held rallies and protests at the gates of jails in Minneapolis, Minn., Hutchinson, Ky., Wildwood, Fla. and an immigrant detention center in Tacoma, Wash. Scores of U.S. cities saw marches, teach-ins, and protests outside Walmart and AT&T. There was even a bike ride from the Bronx to Sing Sing prison in New York.

International solidarity came from England, Greece, Serbia, Mexico, Lithuania, Sweden and other countries. In Canada and Australia inmates refused to work in solidarity.

Reprisals included locking down entire prisons and cutting off all communications with the outside, transferring strikers to other jails or solitary confinement, loss of “good time,” and beatings. Anything to cover up the strike’s success and intimidate incarcerated workers. Many in solitary went on hunger strikes.

Alabama prisoners, coordinating with Virginia, Ohio, and Mississippi inmates, initiated this call for a national work stoppage, demanding the same things all workers need — respect, fair wages and safe working conditions. The National Lawyers Guild and the Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance (AFL-CIO) endorsed the strike and several groups, including Support Prisoner Resistance, Prison Legal News, the Free Alabama Movement and the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee (IWOC), have mobilized community support.

New levels of inmate revolt. In the decades since Attica, conditions have not improved. Hunger strikes and revolts over rancid food, squalid conditions, brutality, and medical care have rocked prisons, jails, and detention centers repeatedly, sometimes winning temporary concessions and reforms. Prison mobilizing is spreading rapidly and getting savvier.

Now that “corrections institutions” have become high tech fortresses and major profit centers for the prison-industrial complex, organizers have focused resistance by refusing to work. Hunger strikes bring bad publicity for wardens and minor temporary improvements; prisoner labor strikes threaten the very existence of the jailing system. Without inmate labor, prisons simply couldn’t function!

On May Day this year, inmates throughout Alabama refused to work. Their text message said, “We will no longer voluntarily participate in this slave system where economics are placed over our humanity.”

In Texas prisons a month earlier inmate workers walked off their jobs and demanded an end to “prison slavery” and an end to mandatory $100 copay for medical care.

In a Sept. 1, 2015, major victory — after four years of organizing and rolling hunger strikes in California jails starting at Pelican Bay supermax — the state of California settled a lawsuit agreeing to limit long-term solitary confinement. Obama ordered the federal Bureau of Prisons to do the same. This can save lives from suicides and mental breakdowns and make prison organizing a bit easier since the torture of indefinite solitary is used to intimidate and isolate organizers and political prisoners.

Who profits from forced prison labor? Inmates have long been forced to work for zero to $1.15 an hour to run the prisons. Their labor strikes shut down the joints, just as in plantation days slaves “let the crops rot in the field” to drive the owner out of business.

Many behind bars are also coerced to work under contracts with corporate giants like Walmart, Sprint, Starbucks, Victoria’s Secret, which saves corporations millions. Your Wendy’s and McDonald’s hamburger patties were likely processed in prisons. Kmart and Penney’s carry jeans made by Tennessee inmates. Prisoners take reservations for American Airlines and Avis.

One of the biggest users of prison labor is UNICOR (a U.S. Federal Bureau of Prisons program) which operates 83 factories in prisons and “sells” to the U.S. military all its helmets and 46 percent of body armor.

The infamous school-to-prison pipeline funnels youths, mostly of color, to jail and keeps them there with harsh sentencing laws. This provides a steady supply of captive workers available inside the walls. Corporations call it “insourcing” and claim “Made in America” status!

Stand up against prison slavery. Inside or outside prison walls, withholding labor is ultimately the only power and the most effective weapon for workers. This historic strike called on inmates to “stop slavery by refusing to be slaves any longer!”

With union organizing across racial and gang lines increasing on the inside, growing awareness, and crucial solidarity from outside the walls, this national labor strike marks a new era of prisoner rebellion. More strikes are bound to follow and cripple the prison-industrial complex. (See for more information.)

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