Prison Inmates in at Least 17 States Are Going on Strike Today

"For some of us it's as if we are already dead, so what do we have to lose?"



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?"

The strike was sparked by an April riot at Lee Correctional Institution in South Carolina that left seven inmates dead. Prison guards reportedly stood by and did nothing to stop the violence.

"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."

NEXT: New Jersey Could Legalize Weed Next Month

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. Inmates going on strike? Does that mean they’re going to act like law-abiding citizens for the day?

    1. Those exist? Huh. I’ve always heard about them but I’ve never met one.

      1. I think he means “citizens the prosecutors haven’t got around to yet”.

      2. I think people can manage to follow all of the laws. But probably not for a whole day at a time. Maybe in five minute chunks, on occasion, if you happen to sit very still in just the right place, at just the right time.

  2. In Arkansas, Georgia, and Texas, they make nothing at all for mandatory labor.

    “The worst thing about being a slave is they make you work, but they don’t pay you or let you go.”

    1. This is different, because we have good reasons for what we do. So, unlike all the other troubles throughout human history.

    2. Just curious, but do you think it’s even possible to have a debt to society for crimes committed?

      1. Who the fuck is this “society” you speak of?

      2. I do. You should be responsible for restitution to those you committed crimes against, and also for paying for your own incarceration. I see nothing immoral about making people pay for their mistakes.



      1. Ear rape isn’t rape-rape…well unless it’s STEVE SMITH that is.

        1. Some day, somebody’s gonna link that wide receiver to this comments section, and he will be PISSED.

          He’ll open cans of whup-ass on all of us.

          Which is still better than what STEVE SMITH would like to do.


    2. Tony

      1. Tony-Roni, buffonnii, ROOObonni!
        Schmubooninii, fuffoni, ROOObooni!!!

  4. tl;dr but let me ask this question – what do you think the purpose of putting people in prison ought to be? Punishment? Deterrence? Rehabilitation? Something else? There can be multiple purposes and it can depend on the crime.

    1. Lawyers sometimes talk about the “Five Objectives of a Criminal Justice System”. They are:
      – Retribution (punishing the criminal)
      – Deterrence (scaring others from becoming criminals)
      – Incapacitation (preventing the criminal from continuing his/her crimes)
      – Rehabilitation (turning the criminal into a not-criminal)
      – Restoration (making the victim whole)

      As you say, which is the right reason for putting any particular person in prison depends on, well, lots of things including the crime.

      1. Those all make sense but they sometimes seem to be at odds with each other. Particularly retribution/deterrence/rehabilitation. The latter, in particular, seems like an invitation to turn prison into a social welfare program. And maybe that’s OK if the goal really is to address some of the circumstances that contributed to someone choosing to commit a crime, but I worry about the perverse incentives that creates (it would not be good IMO if someone got out of prison with more skills than a comparable person who never committed a crime).

        1. Of course this also assumes people aren’t going to jail for BS reasons, which unfortunately isn’t always the case.

          1. s/always/often/

          2. Indeed, it needs to be reformed so that only actual harm puts you in jail instead of things like thought crimes or only causing harm to yourself. Putting a bunch of sympathetic victims into prison helps to confuse what prisons are actually for.

            1. Along those lines, I would want to remind ALL of the readers here to NOT commit the below-described CRIMES!!!!


              PLEASE do NOT make yerself a cheap plastic flute to blow upon, unless ye have the permission of a properly degreed-credentialed-licensed -etc.-physician!!!!

        2. Of course, we neither know how to rehabilitate criminals nor when a criminal is actually rehabilitated, so that goal is quite literally impossible. Instead, people substitute various nostrums that don’t, empirically, have any known effect on recidivism rates, and call those nostrums “rehabilitation”.

          (Actually, there is a empirically-known indicator of recidivism – serum testosterone levels. The only intervention we use to reduce it is “hold someone in prison until they get old”, and the empirical data says it works. The logical inference is that castrating young male offenders would work, more quickly, effectively, and cheaply, to rehabilitate them…)

          If we throw out rehabilitation, however, it’s quite easy to design a system around the other four. You put the prisoner in a situation where he is unable to perpetrate his crimes, you put him to labor (willing or not) and give the profits from that labor to his victim, and you make the conditions of his incapacitation and labor sufficiently unpleasant that it serves as retribution and the prospect of it (at the margins) deterrence. You can automatically scale it to the severity of the crime, and avoid the nonsense of victimless crimes, by having the sentence explicitly end as soon as (and only as soon as) the profits from the prisoner’s labor have made full restitution.

          Of course, this protest objects to many of the very features of the current prison system that would make a four-goal system work.

          1. Well, it doesn’t apply to 100% of people of course, but many criminals are basically just doomed to be trouble makers, if not outright law breakers.

            There is ever mounting evidence that personality traits, including bad ones, are largely genetic. Also IQ. Most criminals have considerable below average IQs. Sooo you can’t actually make people smarter… And personality traits are largely fixed at birth, but whatever role environment plays is also solidified by the teenager years for the most part…

            Hence why so many criminals return to crime.

            Our modern society has thoroughly bought into the ultra egalitarian idea that everybody has the same potential… But it’s simply a lie. People are born with STRONG inclinations certain directions, and statistically most people go the direction they’re inclined towards. Testosterone levels are indeed higher in prison populations, but unless we get down with castration/estrogen injections, or perhaps other major pharmacological interventions Brave New World style… There’s not a lot to be done beyond the few savable people at the margins.

  5. If you are really well intentioned about prison reform, is George Jackson’s memory something you intentionally want to invoke?

  6. I think a man working outdoors feels more like a man if he can have a bottle of suds. That’s only my opinion, sir.

  7. If you are really well intentioned about prison reform, is George Jackson’s memory something you intentionally want to invoke?

  8. Paying the ‘prevailing wage’ (Demand 2) will only increase incarceration. Room, board and job – why not? The fact is, work is a privilege and beats lying in bed all day. If you don’t believe me, just try it. Otherwise I agree with the demands.

  9. The prisoners might have a case on their ‘inhumane conditions’ claims. Prison is not supposed to be a resort vacation but neither should it be unnecessarily cruel or unusual.

    They have no legal case at all for their ‘low wages/prison slavery’ claims.

    1. They’re not filing a court case. They are on strike to affect political change.

      1. What kind of effect will they have by affecting political change?

    2. Uhhh, modern prisons are not inhumane. They’re not fun, but they’re not like being in prison in a London dungeon in 1643 or anything… People in most prisons have more TV channels than I do, because I don’t pay for cable. Many (most?) have air conditioning… My house doesn’t, because I live in Seattle and it’s not common, so I sweat my balls off in the summer. They get fed consistently. Lots of better people who aren’t dregs of society struggle out in the real world to put food on the table.

      I could go on. They’re just whining like bitches because they have nothing better to do, on account of being in prison.

  10. Good thing I don’t need a new license plate!

  11. “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?”

    I guess they’re right, we should outsource our prisons to Mexico am I right?


    A lot of people are in prison for bullshit, don’t get me wrong. They aren’t all there because of bullshit though. And being put into prison isn’t necessarily a human rights issue at all. I also suppose it depends on if you view prison as a punishment or if it’s to reform them. Neither option really seems to work, though, but we generally agree that shooting them in the street is not the answer.

  12. “The ACLU supports the demands of the Nationwide Prison Strike, including the demand for a right to vote.”

    Hmm. Perhaps next time the strikers could demand a right to keep and bear arms?

    1. Now, now. Keeping and bearing arms only has to do with the right to self-defense, the only right so fundamental that even Hobbes thought it could not be surrendered to the Leviathan. Voting is the right to choose proxies to initiate force against others on your behalf to pay for your contraception (at least if you’re female), and therefore utterly sacred.

  13. If you can’t handle the time, don’t do the crime.

  14. First, we definitely need to get rid of BS stuff that shouldn’t be illegal. So there are lots of people in there for shit that shouldn’t be in there. There are also plenty of people falsely accused, but I would wager it’s a minority of people that are in there for real offenses.

    That said, fuck these people. Prison, NOT JAIL where minor offenders go, is not supposed to be fun. It shouldn’t be like dungeons in Europe during the dark ages… But it shouldn’t be fun. It shouldn’t be nice. It should suck balls and be miserable-ish. Frankly they’re probably nicer than they should be now.

    These people have cable TV, air conditioning, the internet, 3 squares a day etc etc etc. WTF more do they want? A fucking Starbucks in every cell block and daily massages to soothe their jangled nerves???

    I’m sure some prison systems are worse than others, but many have some decent job training programs where they teach people realistic jobs skills they can use on the outside. Stuff like cooking, trade jobs, etc. I’m cool with good practical things like this, for whatever minor good it might do.

    Some places have “businesses” where they make stuff and pay them wages. Should wages be above $.50 an hour? I dunno. As I understand that, usually they ARE receiving higher wages, but most of it goes towards paying restitution they owe etc, and they only get to keep that smaller portion.

    1. Either way, they should be getting skimmed to pay for the costs of keeping them locked up for sure, which would leave them not pocketing much of anything at the end of the day… But a token wage they get to keep seems fair and reasonable IMO.

      Personally I think ALL prisoners should be forced to work 40 hours a week, whether they want to or not, to pay for their incarceration. If you commit a real crime, society shouldn’t have to foot the bill. Why we ever did away with this is beyond me, bleeding heart pussies were to blame I suspect.

      I’m sure there are plenty of dumb things that can and should be tweaked, like copying good programs nationally or whatever… But to say they’re being held in inhumane conditions is nonsense. These prisoners have better lives materially speaking than 90% of the people on planet earth. For people that are in there for theft, murder, rape, etc I have zero sympathy. Man up, and go straight when you get out, then you don’t have to worry about it anymore.

      1. ALL prisoners should be forced to work 40 hours a week, whether they want to or not, to pay for their incarceration.

        The problem is that these people are not model workers. Trying to force criminally uncooperative people to work would likely cost a lot more than the value of any goods or services they managed to produce, even if we permitted sufficiently brutal coercion.

        1. I dunno about that. First, they already do it for tooooons of prisoners right now. It seems to work. 2nd it sure as hell worked before we became a nation of coddling bleeding heart pussies. Some uppity thug might be a pain in the ass for the first day, week, month… But after awhile pretty much everyone breaks. I’m sure you could have different types of tasks for different levels of pain in the ass people. Some would probably be fine doing even semi skilled stuff without much problem… But you could find simpler/shittier tasks for the real trouble makers.

          For the 1/10,000 or whatever who simply will not do anything useful, make their life hell. Solitary? Forcing them to do some extra shit job in the prison itself where you can effectively force them to do it within reason? I’m sure we could figure it out.

          If we had better laws, and it was only thieves/murderers/rapists/etc in prison, I would have no problem being a raging dick to those people. I think society is too soft on a lot of fronts nowadays. Inmates suing over the type of peanut butter served in their prison, which was a real case, makes me think how we treat prisoners is one of them.

  15. The only people who should be in prison are people who are a danger to society and need to separated from it.

    People who commit crimes but aren’t generally a threat to the community at large should be punished via lashings. A couple of good whacks is a better way to punish the non-violent offender. Locking them up with actual hardened criminals and therefore necessarily turning them into hardened criminals themselves as a matter of self-preservation is the dumbest possible thing we could do.

    1. “The only people who should be in prison are people who are a danger to other persons…”

      Fixed it.

    2. Don’t forget probation/community service! I think a lot of crimes people go to jail/prison for would be far better served by not sending people to be locked up with actual sketchy people. Plus you actually get some useful things done with community service… Hell, I had to do a fair amount of it myself for those stupid underage drinking charges from high school…

  16. Let hem starve.

  17. If the protests are set “in at least 17 states,” why don’t you name them?

  18. In short, liberals are idiots.

  19. If prisoners are able to organize a simultaneous multi-state protest, it seems their conditions aren’t quite as inhuman as they claim.

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.