By Olivia Alperstein
Across the country the largest prison strike is taking place, vowing to “finally end slavery in 2016.”
Every day, incarcerated people work long hours for a few cents an hour. Meanwhile, prisons charge inmates for everything from telephone calls, to extra food and convenience items, to occupying a bed.
The prison system profits from mass incarceration. Prisons have numerous incentives to fill beds—including the cheap labor prisoners provide—and very little incentive to treat prisoners like human beings.
Current minimum wage laws don’t apply to people in prison, nor do labor rights regulations. So prisoners experiencing grueling hours or cruel treatment don’t have any recourse to file complaints or seek restitution. Most inmates aren’t just low-income—they’re the poorest of the poor.
Much of the prison population wound up in the system because of policies that criminalize race, poverty, and mental health. Some are there because they couldn’t afford to post bail after facing minimal charges. Others end up back in the system because of stigma and policies that make it difficult to find a job as an ex-convict. Others are locked up for being homeless and sleeping on the street, or stealing food.
On just a few pennies an hour, prisoners can’t support themselves or their families, or earn enough to survive once they reenter society. It’s easy to see how prisons trap people in a cycle of poverty that helps ensure that even if released, they’re likely to end up back in prison.
And it’s not just the wages that are reminiscent of slavery. One in ten prisoners is subject to physical and sexual abuse by guards and fellow inmates, according to the first National Former Prisoners Survey. There’s no real infrastructure to address the physical and mental consequences that come with this abuse. Some of these injustices have inspired the Department of Justice to end federal contracts with private prisons, but that’s not enough.
The Eighth Amendment states that cruel and unusual punishment is illegal in this country. Yet, today people are slaving away in prison factories, under working conditions that first prompted the rise of the labor movement. Prisoners are human beings who deserve the same human rights and dignity as the rest of us.
We must end the practice of prison labor. It’s slavery by another name, and we have a clear obligation to ensure that slavery is completely eradicated in the United States.