The political commentator, Chris Hedges, is to be commended for endeavouring to keep the US prison strike in the public eye as the mainstream media continues to ignore the struggle. As Hedges says “The corporate state uses fear, police violence and huge networks of jails and prisons to keep hundreds of millions of underemployed and unemployed poor people from revolting… The bondage that prisoners endure is, little by little, being imposed on us. The fight inside prison walls is our own. And the harsh repression inside prisons to halt the new strike mirrors the harsh repression that awaits us if we resist.”
The nationwide prison work stoppage and hunger strike began on Sept. 9 and over 20,000 prisoners in about 30 prisons are refusing to cooperate with the prison authorities. (It is hard to know how many prisoners are still on strike, just as it is hard to know how many stopped work or started to fast.)
“We will not only demand the end to prison slavery, we will end it ourselves by ceasing to be slaves,” prisoners wrote in a communique.
“We have to shut down the prisons,” Kinetik, one of the founders of the Free Alabama Movement from the Holman Correctional Facility in Escambia County, Alabama. He has been in prison 21 years, serving a sentence of life without parole. “We will not work for free anymore. All the work in prisons, from cleaning to cutting grass to working in the kitchen, is done by inmate labor. Almost no prisoner in Alabama is paid. Without us the prisons, which are slave empires, cannot function. Prisons, at the same time, charge us a variety of fees, such as for our identification cards or wrist bracelets, and impose numerous fines, especially for possession of contraband. They charge us high phone and commissary prices. Prisons each year are taking larger and larger sums of money from the inmates and their families. The state gets from us millions of dollars in free labor and then imposes fees and fines. You have brothers that work in kitchens 12 to 15 hours a day and have done this for years and have never been paid.”
The 2.3 million human beings, most of them poor people of color, who are locked in cages across the country provide billions in salaries and other revenues for depressed rural towns with large prisons. They provide billions more in profits to phone card companies, money transfer companies, food service companies, merchandise vendors, construction companies, laundry services, uniform companies, prison equipment vendors and the manufacturers of pepper spray, body armor and the many other medieval instruments used for the physical restraint of prisoners. They also make billions for corporations—Whole Foods, Verizon, Starbucks, McDonald’s, Sprint, Victoria’s Secret, American Airlines, J.C. Penney, Sears, Wal-Mart, Kmart, Eddie Bauer, Wendy’s, Procter & Gamble, Johnson & Johnson, Fruit of the Loom, Motorola, Caterpillar and dozens of others—that collectively exploit 1 million prison laborers. Items once provided to prisoners, such as shoes, extra blankets and toilet paper, now often must be bought from the prison commissary, run by corporations such as Keefe Supply Co. These commissaries are, in effect, company stores where prices are exorbitant and the buyers are hostage. Companies such as GTL force prisoners to pay phone rates five or six times higher than those on the outside. JPay, a money transfer service for prisoners, imposes fees as high as 25 percent. The incarcerated are increasingly being charged for electricity and room and board. This bleeds the prisoners and their families of the little income they possess. Those who run out of money are forced to take out prison loans to buy medications, cover legal and medical fees and purchase commissary items such as soap and deodorant. Debt peonage is as common among prisoners as it is among the wider public. And when prisoners are released they often owe the state thousands of dollars in debt they incurred while locked up. When they can’t pay it back they are tossed back into prison. The U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics reports that 75 percent of released prisoners are rearrested within five years. This keeps the perpetual cycle of neoslavery lubricated.
Why pay workers outside the walls the minimum wage when you can pay workers behind walls only a couple of dollars a day? Why exploit sweatshop workers in countries like Bangladesh when you can exploit sweatshop workers in U.S. prisons? Why permit prison reform that would impede profits? Why not expand a system that reduces labor costs to slave wages? Prisoners are the ideal workers in corporate America. They earn from 8 cents to about 44 cents an hour. In some states, such as Alabama, they earn nothing. They receive no Social Security, pensions or other benefits. They do not get paid overtime. They are prohibited from organizing or carrying out strikes. They always show up on time. They are not paid for sick days or granted vacations. They cannot complain about poor working conditions or safety hazards. If they protest their meager wages or working conditions they instantly lose their jobs and are placed in isolation cells. They live in an environment where they daily face the possibility of torture, beatings, prolonged isolation, sensory deprivation, racial profiling, rancid food, inadequate medical care, little or no heating and ventilation, and rape. In short, they are slaves.
“For years we were called niggers to indicate we had no value or worth and that anything could be done to us. Then the word ‘nigger’ became politically incorrect. So they began calling us criminals. When you say a person is a criminal it means that what happens to them does not matter. It means he or she is a nigger. It means they deserve what they get.” – prison activist, Melvin Ray