On August 21—the 47th anniversary of the death of activist George Jackson, a member of the Black Panther Party who was shot by prison guards—incarcerated people in at least 17 prisons across the country began a nearly three-week-long strike in protest of prison condition, participating in sit-ins and work slowdowns.
This was one of the largest prison strikes organized in U.S. history. And they did it because they are being subjected to unconscionable conditions, relentless violence, and forced labor that is a form of modern-day slavery.
Incarcerated people are often forced to work with minimal or no pay in strenuous jobs. Just last month, there were incarcerated individuals fighting fires in California for just $1 an hour—though they won’t even qualify to get jobs as firefighters in California once they’re out of prison.
In states such as Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, and Texas, incarcerated people receive no pay for their labor. Public buildings and state legislatures often use prison labor without paying the workers a fair wage.
Everyone assumes that slavery ended with the 13th Amendment, but the amendment reads as follows:
Section 1. 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.
Section 2. Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.
The 13th Amendment to the Constitution actually created an intentional loophole that legitimized slavery. This loophole is used to this day to force people in prison to work with little to no pay. And courts have continued to uphold this view.
Just as teachers fought for higher pay in West Virginia through a strike, these people are fighting for their rights as workers and as people who should be treated with dignity under a truly unjust system.
These were the 10 demands of the prison strike:
- Immediate improvements to the conditions of prisons and prison policies that recognize the humanity of imprisoned men and women
- An immediate end to prison slavery. All persons imprisoned in any place of detention under United States jurisdiction must be paid the prevailing wage in their state or territory for their labor.
- The Prison Litigation Reform Act must be rescinded, allowing imprisoned humans a proper channel to address grievances and violations of their rights.
- The Truth in Sentencing Act and the Sentencing Reform Act must be rescinded so that imprisoned humans have a possibility of rehabilitation and parole. No human shall be sentenced to death by incarceration or serve any sentence without the possibility of parole.
- An immediate end to the racial overcharging, over-sentencing, and parole denials of black and brown humans. Black humans shall no longer be denied parole because the victim of the crime was white, which is a particular problem in southern states.
- An immediate end to racist gang enhancement laws targeting Black and brown humans.
- No imprisoned human shall be denied access to rehabilitation programs at their place of detention because of their label as a violent offender.
- State prisons must be funded specifically to offer more rehabilitation services.
- Pell Grants must be reinstated in all U.S. states and territories.
- The voting rights of all confined citizens serving prison sentences, pretrial detainees, and so-called “ex-felons” must be counted. Representation is demanded. All voices count.
The Right to Vote
So often, when we think of democracy—and creating the democratic society we all deserve, not the imperfect one we were handed—we forget those who are excluded from participating at all. Across the country, there are states that completely bar any formerly incarcerated person from voting.
Some states are making progress—New York recently granted many parolees the right to register to vote, and in Florida, the “Second Chances” ballot initiative this November could restore voting rights to over a million people who have a lifetime ban on voting because of prior convictions.
This is what we can do. Learn about the conditions within prisons, listen to the people most impacted, and share the story of this historic strike.
There are people envisioning a more perfect democracy that we all deserve. As progressive candidates seek election across the country, let’s make sure they’re paying attention to this new vision too.
Learn more at incarceratedworkers.org/campaigns/prison-strike-2018