As movements for freedom and against mass incarceration continue to build behind prison walls, more prisoners are looking to the power of the work stoppage to advance their cause.
Inmates in Alabama’s dreaded Holman Correctional Facility launched a labor strike on May 1, shutting down the prison’s inmate-staffed kitchen, license plate manufacturing plant and food processing plant. In a document posted online, inmate members of the Free Alabama Movement demanded an end to the practice of “prison slavery,” whereby prisoners are forced to labor for a fraction of the legal minimum wage and no benefits, if they are even paid at all.
The prison administration was forced to send in prison guard scabs to keep production going. They put the facility on lockdown, restricting inmates’ movements in order to prevent further prisoner solidarity. Within days, however, the strike spread to four other Alabama prisons: Elmore, St. Clair, Staton and Donaldson Correctional Facilities. (workers.org, May 19)
Prisoner labor strikes also swept the state of Texas on April 4 as inmates in seven state prisons initiated work stoppages to protest deplorable living and working conditions. And back in 2014, a labor strike by undocumented mothers incarcerated and awaiting deportation proceedings at Pennsylvania’s Berks County Family Detention Center had forced the Obama administration to order the gradual release of all mothers with children from immigration detention facilities.
Building off this momentum, inmates in Alabama, Mississippi, Ohio and Virginia have put out a call for a national prison labor strike on September 9, the 45th anniversary of the Attica Prison Rebellion. Striking prisoners will demand an end to prison slavery. “To achieve this goal,” reads a statement released online by the organizers, “we need support from people on the outside. A prison is an easy-lockdown environment, a place of control and confinement where repression is built into every stone wall and chain link, every gesture and routine. When we stand up to these authorities, they come down on us, and the only protection we have is solidarity from the outside.” The full text of the statement can be read at tinyurl.com/oa7m2vt.
The recent turn toward labor strikes as a tactic in the movement to end mass incarceration, forced prison labor and inhumane conditions represents an advance from previous methods, which generally consisted of hunger strikes, lawsuits and letter-writing campaigns. In a document titled “Let the crops rot in the fields: A call for new strategy in the National Movement Against Mass Incarceration and Prison Slavery,” posted online on Feb. 26, the Free Alabama Movement explains the rationale for the change in strategy: “Just like the institution of chattel slavery, mass incarceration is in essence an economic system which uses human beings as its nuts and bolts. Therefore, our new approach must be economically based, and must be focused on the factors of production — the people being forced into this slave labor.” (FreeAlabamaMovement.wordpress.com)
The document identifies unpaid and underpaid prison labor as a fundamental pillar of the system of mass incarceration, and a source of superprofits to the corporations that utilize it. Sales of goods manufactured by prisoners totaled between $2.4 billion and $5 billion in 2009, and prison industries overall generated some $34.4 billion in revenues in 2010. (phewacommunity.org) Prison labor is so profitable that corporations from McDonald’s to JCPenney, Starbucks, Boeing and UPS all utilize it.
The document also outlines a general strategy for further advancing the movement: “Remember, we are working against a half trillion dollar system that is controlled by businessmen and women who are the modern-day slave profiteers. And just like any business, their focus is on the bottom line. From this viewpoint, we must organize work stoppages at prisons with economic industries that are operated by slave labor. The impact of a work stoppage is immediate and significant, as production is shut down and profit margins plummet around the country.”
In addition to calling on prisoners to initiate more planned work stoppages, the Free Alabama Movement calls on supporters nationwide to organize protests outside prison facilities and to boycott key corporations that profit from prison labor. Only a broad, united front of workers in prison and outside can overturn once and for all this racist system of chattel slavery. Forward the prisoner revolution!