Prison inmates in at least 17 states plan to go on strike today. They will refuse to work or eat, in protest of the low wages and inhumane conditions that they say prevail through the U.S. prison system.
Details on how many prisoners are participating are extremely difficult to confirm, since prisons, by design, are not transparent institutions. But activists both inside and outside the institutions have been working to organize the strike for months.
"Fundamentally, it's a human rights issue," Jailhouse Lawyers Speak, an anonymous collective of incarcerated organizers, say in a statement. "Prisoners understand they are being treated as animals. Prisons in America are a warzone. Every day prisoners are harmed due to conditions of confinement. For some of us it's as if we are already dead, so what do we have to lose?"
"Seven comrades lost their lives during a senseless uprising that could have been avoided had the prison not been so overcrowded from the greed wrought by mass incarceration, and a lack of respect for human life that is embedded in our nation's penal ideology," the organizers write in their list of 10 demands. "These men and women are demanding humane living conditions, access to rehabilitation, sentencing reform and the end of modern day slavery."
The demands include "immediate improvements to the conditions of prisons and prison policies that recognize the humanity of imprisoned men and women," as well as "an immediate end to prison slavery." The 13th Amendment to the Constitution outlawed slavery except, notably, "as punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted." That provision led to "convict leasing" programs throughout the South after the Civil War, where convicts, the majority of them black, were subjected to brutal unpaid labor for the benefit of private companies.
The convict leasing system was eventually abolished, but the use of prison labor is commonplace today. For example, as Reason's Eric Boehm has reported, California inmates are currently volunteering to fight the biggest wildfires in state history, but they're being paid only $2 an hour. In Alabama inmates are paid 25 to 75 cents an hour to make license plates and other items. In Arkansas, Georgia, and Texas, they make nothing at all for mandatory labor.
Other prison strike demands are fairly specific, such as the restoring felon voting rights and rescinding the Prison Litigation Reform Act, a bill passed in the 1990s that made it much more difficult for inmates to file federal civil rights lawsuits challenging their conditions and treatment.
"These are conditions that the American public has neglected—malignly—for years," Nicholas Turner, president of the Vera Institute of Justice, says in an emailed statement. "Different from other elements of justice reform where people can see evidence that undermines the flawed assumptions that the system is working—videos of police brutality, imposition of bail in public courtrooms—most people are blind when it comes to prison conditions. What happens behind those grey walls is obscured from public view."
Organizers chose to begin and end the strike on August 21 and Septembe 9, two significant dates in U.S. prison history. On August 21, 1971, San Quentin guards shot and killed the influential Black Panther activist George Jackson. Jackson had smuggled a gun into prison and freed other inmates, who murdered several guards and two other inmates, before attempting to escape. (Jackson's supporters have never believed the official story of his death.)
On September 9 of the same year, inmates at New York's Attica prison took over the facility and held 42 officers and civilians hostage. The inmates demanded better conditions and access to uncensored newspapers and political material, among other things, but they also wanted legal immunity for the takeover, which New York officials adamantly refused to promise.
The Attica rebellion ended four days later when New York State Troopers retook the prison by force, unleashing a hail of bullets that killed 39 people, including 10 hostages. Officials initially lied to the press and public, claiming inmates had slit hostages' throats. The state of New York then went to extraordinary lengths—including intimidation and destruction of evidence—to cover up retaliation, torture, and outright murder during and following the retaking.
Today's protest follows a similar large-scale strike in 2016, which reportedly involved 24,000 inmates in 29 different prisons. In 2013, about 30,000 California inmates went on hunger strike to protest the state's draconian use of solitary confinement.
"The courageous people who are bringing focused attention to America's system of mass incarceration through the Nationwide Prison Strike deserve our admiration," Udi Ofer, director of the ACLU's Campaign for Smart Justice, says in an emailed statement. "The ACLU supports the demands of the Nationwide Prison Strike, including the demand for a right to vote. Our country is stronger when people most marginalized and directly impacted by unjust policies raise their voices in protest and demand a different future."