Though not widely reported in Canada, September has seen a significant strike among prisoners South of the border. Organized by the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee (IWOC), prisoners in at least 24 States have coordinated work stoppages. The strikes began on September 9th, on the 45th anniversary of the Attica prison uprising.
As reported by The Atlantic, In the U.S. the 13th Amendment prohibits slavery and involuntary servitude, “except as punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.” Prisoners, in other words, can be forced to work. And they are.
Despite the fact that they engage in prison labour, inmates are not considered “employees” and are therefore unable to form unions. Nevertheless, prisoners have coordinated strikes largely because they perceive the current system of prison labour to be little more than a form of slavery.
Indeed, it would be hard to argue otherwise. In the federal system, for instance, a prisoner’s labour is remunerated at a mere 23 cents per hour. At the State level, the wages may be even less. As reported by The Nation, in Texas, Alabama, Georgia, and Arkansas, incarcerated people are not compensated and are forced to work for free.
Prisoners often perform labour for major corporations which contract with both public and private correctional facilities. In contracting with prisons, corporations benefit from extremely cheap labour. Wal-Mart uses prisoners to scrub products, Starbucks to package coffee, and Victoria’s Secret to sew clothing. These are but a few of the many heavy-weights that exploit prison labour to reduce payroll costs. Doing an end run around labour standards, the corporations profit from prison labour, pay the workers only pennies per hour, if that much.
Prison labour, in all but name, is a species of slavery - and prisoners, quite rightly, are demanding change.
That the system of prison labour is basically a mere rebranding of slavery is especially concerning given the fact that visible minorities are over-represented in the prison population. Add to this the fact that the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery in 1855, also created fertile ground to allow for the continuation of slavery through the prison industry.
When slavery was legally abolished, a new set of laws called the “Black Codes” emerged to criminalize legal activity for African-Americans. Acts such as standing in one area of town or walking at night, for example, became the criminal acts of “loitering” or “breaking curfew.” African Americans were disproportionately imprisoned for these harmless acts, and the percentage of African Americans in prison skyrocketed.
A system of convict leasing was developed to allow white slave plantation owners in the South to literally purchase prisoners to live on their property and work under their control. The system generated revenue and profits for both the state and private parties.
To ask whether the system of convict leasing and the Black Codes are not eerily similar to the intersection of today’s prison industry and the over-incarceration of minorities through unsuccessful policies, like the War on Drugs, is to begin to acknowledge that maybe, just maybe, slavery never left – it just got rebranded.
Recognizing this basic injustice, solidarity protests have arisen. Supporters of incarcerated workers have taken to the streets to express solidarity and join the fight against barely compensated prison labour.
Impact on the average worker
Allowing corporations to shirk their responsibilities to pay workers fair wages not only condones slavery of the prisoners, it damages the broader labour market. When employers are permitted to “hire” workers at pennies per hour, a downward pressure is created, pulling down the wages of all workers. At the federal level, in 2011, Unicor, an authorized vendor for numerous government agencies, recorded profits of around $900 million. According to CNN, Unicor competes with small businesses for government contracts to make provisions for the divisions of the U.S. government, like the U.S. Air Force. With Unicor’s hourly labour costs being mere pennies, small businesses can’t compete and it risks forcing these businesses to shutter their doors.
As Scott Paul, Executive Director of the Alliance for American Manufacturing, notes, this creates a race to the bottom for wages, harming American workers:
The prison labour industry, in other words, is not a discrete issue affecting only inmates. This industry is an affront and assault to the rights and opportunities of all workers."
No matter how you look at it, the system of prison labour hurts workers while providing a boon for government and private corporations. The mass work stoppages coordinated among prisoners are to be applauded for bringing awareness to the sheer size and scope of this problem. All workers, whether inmates or not, deserve fair wages for their labour. If this system of new-age slavery would end and inmates were fairly compensated, not only would the prisoners benefit, workers in society would no longer need to compete with the grossly inadequate wages of prisoners. Whether the prisoner strikes effect change remains to be seen, but one thing is certain: to turn a blind eye to their plight is no longer an adequate response.
For more on the prison industrial complex, see our previous post here.