On Tuesday, prisoners across the US started the first nationwide prison strike since 2016. Prisoners are refusing food as part of the strike.
The strike goes beyond asking for prison conditions to be improved. Organizers aim to draw attention to the deaths while in custody. Another significant issue is the poor compensation (in some cases, no compensation) for work the prisoners carry out.
The Financial Benefits of Prison Slave Labor
With few exceptions, US prisoners are required to work if deemed medically fit by prison authorities. These are just some of the daily labor performed by prison workers:
- Run prison facilities
- Public works maintenance and repairs
- Manufacture products and provide services for privately owned corporations
- Dangerous jobs for professionals, such as fighting wildfires
Prison labor is not compensated at all in some states. It is poorly compensated in others. Prisoners risking their lives to fight the California wildfires came to public attention for receiving only $2 per day.
They get an extra $1 per hour when they are actively fighting wildfires.
In some cases, inmates are paid as little as 20 cents per hour.
Prisoners and their advocates regard the exploitation of prisoner labor as a form of modern-day slavery.
History of the 13th Amendment Loophole & Prison Slave Labor
The 13th Amendment was designed to abolish slavery and passed in 1865. Unfortunately, it included a loophole. Forced labor could be used as a disciplinary action for a crime as long as the person was convicted of the crime.
The impact of the loophole was to legalize slavery among prison populations. Former Southern slave owners were able to take advantage of this. They hired prisoners out to private companies.
In his book One Dies, Get Another: Convict Leasing in the American South, Matthew Mancini says that even slave abolitionists supported this loophole. They relied on forced labor provided by prisoners. African-American prisoners were:
…contracted out to businessmen, planters, and corporations in one of the harshest and most exploitative labor systems known in American history.
Forced labor in prisons is often talked about as being in the prisoners’ own interests in terms of assisting their rehabilitation. Exploitation remains the key motivating factor.
Alex Lichtenstein, a labor historian and professor at Indiana University, says that historically prison labor was often viewed as part of the punishment of inmates and gives the example of the 1780s Walnut Street Jail vocational workshops in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
This then led to authorities using the labor for more pragmatic and self-serving reasons, to reduce the cost of running prisons and to provide works for the state. Prison labor has taken on more significance in recent times because of the slashing of state budgets.
Historically proponents of prison labor have also argued that it allows inmates to earn a living, provide for their families and encourage them to improve their lives upon release.
However any payment that prisoners do receive as compensation for their labor is not enough for them to meet their needs in prison, let alone provide for their families or create a decent level of savings upon release. Also many have noted the irony of prison labor being used for work that they would not be able to carry out on release.
To go back to the California wildfires example, most of the state’s counties require emergency medical technician (EMT) licenses to become firefighters. But, it’s almost impossible to obtain this license with a criminal record.
Strike organizers hope that this protest will draw attention to the exploitative nature of prison labor and are demanding that inmates be paid the minimum wage in each state.