Inmates across the US refused to provide prison labor during the largest strike of its kind in the US.
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What Can We Learn From the Largest Prison Strike in US History?

This past August, inmates in 17 U.S. states went on strike by refusing to eat or work. That meant no prison labor to help feed the pockets of the various DOCs.

And, there are lessons to be learned from what ended up being the largest prison strike in the history of America.

These 2018 prison strikes called attention to a number of troubling issues which included:

  • Dilapidated correctional facilities
  • Harsh sentences even for nonviolent offenders
  • Various aspects of mass incarceration in America
Protesters on the Outside Also Took Part in the Largest Prison Strike in US History to End Prison Slavery.
Protesters on the Outside Also Took Part in the Largest Prison Strike in US History to End Prison Slavery. Image Source: The Intercept

Prison Labor: What Do Incarcerated People Do For Work?

The 2018 prison strikes placed spotlight on the questionable practices of putting prisoners to work for very low or no wages.

Cheap prison labor lines the pockets of both DOCs and the companies providing the prison jobs. Yet, these inmates get very few lucrative advantages for working for these companies.

Numerous private companies employ prison inmates. Some examples of jobs for incarcerated men and women provided inside correctional facilities include:

  • Producing consumer goods, such as lingerie
  • Answering customer service calls
  • Packaging Starbucks coffee
  • Manufacturing furniture
  • Refurbishing bicycles
  • Fighting wildfires

However, this practice can seems to be against the various U.S. legal commitments and responsibilities. Prison advocates say this is against the spirit of the 13th Amendment which ended slavery.

Since prison inmates work for no more than $1 per hour, and sometimes for no pay at all, some call this prison slave labor.

This even violates voluntary codes of conduct of some of the companies involved.

Prison Labor Marketed as ‘Best-Kept Secret’ by The Feds

Prison Labor Usage and the Logic Behind It

Supporters of forced inmate labor justify it as a way for prisoners to repay their debts to society. They say it provides job skills that will be useful at the end of prison sentences.

Supposedly, it also partially offsets the high costs of mass incarceration, recently estimated at $182 BILLION a year nationwide.

U.S. Government’s Double Standards About Forced/Cheap Prison Labor

The American government has often strongly criticized other countries like Burma and China for using forced labor to make goods or build pipelines.

Still the truth is, it’s just as widespread in the U.S. as elsewhere, with the Department of the Navy and Minnesota among the governmental entities sued for minimum wage violations in prisons.

As a matter of fact, a 2004 economic analysis of labor in both state and federal prisons estimated that in the previous year, inmates produced more than $2 BILLION worth of commodities, both goods and services.

Furthermore, many private businesses have used prison labor to keep costs down. They pay prisoners mere pennies per hour to produce high-end product brands, such:

As a matter of fact, even immigrants awaiting deportation proceedings were forced to do janitorial and clerical work for $1 a day.  This was at the private detention facilities where they were held, according to recent litigation.

Shockingly, inmates have claimed in lawsuits that they earned as little as 12 cents an hour, or even nothing as well.

Forced prison labor in the U.S. has to be reconciled with the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which is most famous for forbidding the practice of slavery.

Inmates across the US refused to provide prison labor during the largest strike of its kind in the US.
Inmates across the US refused to provide prison labor during the largest strike of its kind in the US. Image Source: We Are Change

Prison Slave Labor: A Breakdown of the The 13th Amendment

In the first section of the 13th amendment, it is very clear that people convicted of a crime can be forced to work as punishment. However, it says nothing about whether they have to be compensated.

This is an exclusion CDCs and private companies have used to justify forced, cheap and non-compensated prison labor.

Yet, according to the second section of the 13th amendment, Congress clearly has the power to regulate inmate labor in federal prisons. But, the US has not done so.

This allows private companies to continue to “hire” federal prison inmates for jobs without paying them fair wages, or any wages at all.

Lawmakers have, however, passed other laws that may already apply to prisoners with jobs, such as the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938. This Act guarantees a minimum wage and overtime to be paid to ALL people employed in the U.S.

That would include America’s prison inmates.

Protests Across the US Fighting Against Modern Day Slavery in Prisons

‘Thirteenth Amendment Project’ Expands Its Meaning

Thirteenth Amendment Project intends to find ways to use the Amendment to reduce economic injustice in the U.S. The plan is to attack problems both state and federal inmates face, such as mass incarceration and minimum wage labor standards.

In our view the 13th Amendment Project, the meaning of involuntary servitude has a wider reach than simply the abusive arrangements that were in place in 1865.

The project managers believe the Amendment should also include modern conditions facing immigrant workers, detainees and workers bound to abusive contractual work arrangements within prison facilities across the country.

U.S. International Human Rights Obligations

Beyond domestic law, there’s the issue of the United States’ obligations under international human rights conventions.

The U.S. is a member of the International Labour Organization (ILO). It, as a core principle, requires the elimination of forced and compulsory labor within its borders.

ILO is a United Nations agency that creates and sets up the agency’s international labor standards. Also, it promotes social protection and work opportunities for all:

While governments in some circumstances can use forced labor, the work cannot be hired or placed at the disposal of private individuals, companies or associations.

The U.S. is one of only nine countries that have not ratified this convention. This puts America in the same company of countries such as Afghanistan, China and Brunei.

Generally, the reason often given is that the 13th Amendment already covers forced labor.

Lessons Learned from the Largest Prison Strike in US History

Prisons and detention centers exist and operate in the name of the public good. Americans want to believe these institutions make our society safer by upholding the rule of law.

Yet, as those locked up keep telling us in the most painful and graphic details, these places are barbaric. They do far more harm to society than good.

These are places where men, women and children are placed in solitary confinement for periods so long the practice is considered torture by medical experts.

Prisons are places where human beings are fed too little or served inadequate food not fit for any human. Inmates are denied access to basic medical care, and are raped, abused and even killed.

These are places where children behind bars are isolated from their parents, and where parents behind bars find it almost impossible to connect with their kids. This is thanks to private vendors who charge usurious rates for prison phone calls.

They continuously push states to allow video visitations only to up their profits.

Wicked Practices: Replacing Prison Visits with Expensive Video Conferencing

These myriad abuses take place in taxpayer-funded institutions. They only happen because the public is utterly shut out.

And so, it is indeed positive that the media is finally shining light on what prisoners need in order to survive their time behind the walls.

They need immediate improvements to conditions inside the facilities and changes to prison policies that recognize the humanity of imprisoned men and women.

Also, they need us to bring an end to prison slavery. They need real prison rehabilitation programs created that brings value to their lives on the outside.

Prisoners also want to end to severe racial discrimination evident in our nation’s policing practices, laws and sentencing guidelines. They are calling for the rescinding of 1996’s Prison Litigation Reform Act, which has made it difficult for prisoners to seek legal help.

What happens next is also critical.

When the headlines fade, and prisons once again slip from the public’s consciousness, that’s when they will be in the most jeopardy.

The 2018 Prison’s Strike Legacy

Prisoners who protested poor treatment and conditions should not expect the largest prison strike in American history will lead to the end of prison labor.

Yet, whether or not the 13th Amendment or international conventions ultimately limit or end the practice of cheap and unpaid prison labor remains to be seen. Legislatures should or at least require fair compensation for prison inmates with jobs working for private companies.

This will likely depend on the United States Supreme Court.

The 2018 prison strike lasted through September 9. Did it make consumers become more aware that some of their supplies may have passed through the hands of inmates?

This was the largest prison strike in US history. It’s vital that we learn something from it:

The nature of the crime can’t change, but the nature of the person can.

Are you okay with buying high-end goods created by inmates for wages of pennies per hour? Tell us what you think in the comments below.

Merri Wong
Merri Wong has had an interest in law and social studies since her early days in life. She holds a bachelor’s degree in Paralegal Studies, and currently works as a freelance writer. Her writing portfolio includes numerous topics from reviews to relationships, from mental health to marriage. Merri currently helps report the news for Prison Rideshare Network.