It takes a few minutes for guards to notice that the chow line has stopped. The line of prisoner workers who cook and serve the food have stepped back and are working at half speed. Some never left their cells at all. Others have sat down during laundry shifts, demanding to be viewed as workers.
The prisoners have gone on strike.
This across the board refusal to work launches prisoners across the country into the center of the labor movement that has challenged workplaces and government institutions for over a century.
On a global level, the United States stands out as a leader in an expanding system of mass incarceration. America’s prisoner system holds over 2.2 million people, many for non-violent drug offenses. Many of them are believed to have their human rights violated as a result of poor living and working conditions. As populations swell, many prisons are exceeding their limits, housing inmates in overcrowded units with substandard healthcare and management systems.
Some 870,000 of these American prisoners are also workers, either in jobs keeping the prison wheels turning or with privately contracted companies. With prison labor as such a central part of incarceration system, the question is what would happen if they were actually recognized as a legitimate labor force.
A Union for Incarcerated Workers
This very question was posed by several incarcerated people who reached out to the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), a radical labor union with over a hundred years of militant struggle. While huge numbers of inmates have daily jobs, no other labor union would be willing to cross the barrier of incarceration and begin organizing those doing time. The IWW responded by setting up the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee (IWOC), and began a program to organize prisoners as workers. This meant looking at the common issues that prisoners are faced with, both in their workplaces and in their day-to-day lives, and see what power they have as workers within those institutions.
“The idea is that IWOC organizes both incarcerated workers and those who stand in solidarity with them on the other side of the razor wire,” said Azzurra Crispino, an organizer with IWOC and a part of their communications team.
“The IWW really has a strong history of civil disobedience, people getting arrested and refusing to bail out and refusing to plead out in order to jam the jails. The IWW has been engaging in these tactics since the beginning. So there would naturally be a strong sense of solidarity between the IWW and incarcerated workers.”
The IWOC project, which is now organizing hundreds of prisoners in facilities around the country, came after several years of heightened organizing, both inside of prisons and in organizations that support the rights of those locked up. In 2010, prisoners across six prisons in Georgia went public with a strike, refusing to leave their cells or go to work. Among the demands was to finally be paid for labor done inside the prison, something that federal law does not require.
In April of 2016 Texas saw a similar situation with prisoners at several state-run facilities going on strike, many affiliating with IWOC. The inmates made connections between the mass incarceration and the exploitation they suffered in the jobs they have been forced into, explained Keith “Malik” Washington, an organizing Texas prisoner, in a letter written during the strike:
“We must look closer in order to understand what is really going on. You see, I have teamed up with extremely intelligent and politically aware prisoners and organizations who see the connection between capitalism – mass incarceration – profit – and prison profiteering corporations.”
A United Front, a United Voice
The IWOC project came on the heels of organizations that have been laying the groundwork for years. The most prominent being the Free Alabama Movement (FAM), which has taken up a leading role in this prisoner-led reform movement with on-and-off prison strikes since January 2014.
Focusing on some of the worst prison conditions in the South, FAM came together as a prisoner-solidarity movement raising issues like toxic facility conditions and the inability for prisoners to count on promises from the administration. Along with them were a dozen other projects, from the Free Georgia Movement to the Free Ohio Movement, dealing directly with issues local inmates are facing.
As these waves of prisoner organizing and strikes came through, a coalition formed with IWOC, Anarchist Black Cross, and several of these long-standing organizations to have a nation-wide prison strike. It is from this collaboration that the idea for the September 9 strike emerged, aiming to become one of the largest prison strikes in history.
In order to achieve this goal, it would be necessary to connect the ways in which prisoners have always resisted oppressive conditions with outside organizers.
Building these connection is essential to break through the isolation of the prisoners, which is an important tool of oppression, according to Tyler Bee, organizer of the nationwide September 9 coalition and the Portland chapter of Anarchist Black Cross.
“The idea was to try to spread the word about what was happening around the country in different facilities and the fact that there is this outside support happening.”
Life on the Inside
This latest prison strike is the continuation of a long history of prisoner organizing. September 9, 2016 is the 45th anniversary of the prisoner uprising at the Attica facility in New York. As the best-known confrontation in the Prisoners’ Rights Movement, almost half of Attica’s 2,200 prisoners took control of prison in response to brutal conditions and the killing of civil rights leader George Jackson in San Quentin. They demanded an end to retaliation and violence against inmates, access to life-saving medical treatment, and reform to the visitation system.
Advocates say that little has changed for most prisoners living in these facilities. Inmates who have jobs lack even the most basic labor protections workers on the outside have won many years ago through various labor struggles. The 13th Amendment to the Constitution was granted after the abolition of slavery barring this kind of treatment except as a penalty for the commission of a crime. This means that prisoners may be subject to slave labor conditions, and most prisoners are either paid nothing for their work or make only a few cents an hour.
The level of danger in some of these prisons can be dramatic, with some Oregon inmates being sent out of facility to fight forest fires on twelve-hour shifts. Prisoners often have to compete for these jobs since they have massive costs, with companies like JPay having a near monopoly handling communication services.
The most significant costs prisoners often face, however, is healthcare. Many prisoners are facing upwards of $100 co-payments, a price that would be exorbitant even for people making a regular wage. Inside of prisons Hepatitis C has hit epidemic numbers, and without access to standard treatments many patients have a grim prognosis.
Prison workplaces seldom see safety protocols that would be expected in almost all other situations. Inmates employed in prison kitchens and garment centers often do without air conditioning and ventilation, while working under conditions of extreme heat. Workers often just douse themselves with water and hope to get through the workday.
While working conditions have become increasingly challenging for prisoners, the reform of a practice called Good Time is recognized as a top priority. Good Time is a period of early release that is granted for unpaid hours worked. The problem is that much of this is not guaranteed and workers often do not have their promised Good Time honored, no matter what their conduct was.
This was the case with Malik Washington, who was recently denied his sixth attempt at parole even though he has already served his entire sentence if his Good Time was factored in.
This institutional disregard for prisoners has become most obvious in the use of long-term solitary confinement, a punishment that has been deemed as torture by the United Nations for any period past fifteen days. Many units house prisoners for decades in confined units of six by nine foot cells without being able to pass through real sunlight.
A large proportion of inmates works on facility functions, keeping food prepared and laundry clean, but a growing number of inmates are plugged in with commercial companies receiving subsidies for using the prison supply. Major companies like Verizon are using prisons as worksite call centers, and clothes for places like Victoria’s Secret are often stitched in high security facilities.
Inmates working for these private companies often only make a few cents an hour, while the companies they’re working for are not required to meet regular labor or OSHA regulations. Whole Foods announced in 2015 that it would stop using prison labor to create their specialty items like expensive cheeses, and FAM has specifically singled out McDonald’s for its investment in prisons.
Solar City, one of the more well-known solar panel developers in Oregon, received tax credit for employing Oregon labor. The issue that organizers raised was that this Oregon labor was in fact prison employment, for which they were granted an additional tax credit.
Another layer of prison corporatization has taken effect with the expanse of private prisons, companies contracting with state and federal governments to provide the service of housing inmates. IWOC has taken a special stance against the private prison system and companies like the Corrections Corporation of America, who have raked in millions in taxpayer dollars while providing below-standard pay for employees and seeing a higher rate of reported abuses. Lacking the same institutional oversight that most prisons have, private prisons hire corrections officers often barely above minimum wage and little training.
The poor conditions and track record of private prisons has recently seen public outrage, with Mother Jones doing a massive undercover report on what it is like to enter a facility wearing a guard’s uniform.
After a growing movement to push officials away from private contractors, the Department of Justice recently announced that they would finally be ending the practice. Though a victory for organizers, only about 22,000 of the 193,000 federal prisoners are held in private facilities. The announcement does not affect the vast majority of the 2.2 million prisoners in the US.
While companies like Management & Training Corporation were publicly outraged at the loss of the Bureau of Prisons contract, they may be able to expand as the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement increases their use of privatized detention facilities.
Towards Total Abolition
For IWOC, closing private prisons and increasing the standards for prison workers is only part of the struggle. Many organizers, both on the in- and outside are motivated by a belief in prison abolition, one that sees prisons as a symptom of larger social inequalities and patterns of control. This means investing in alternatives to incarceration, like models of transformative justice. In this way these individual issues can act as a stepping-stone, a way to see substantive gains in the direction of overhauling the system of human confinement.
IWOC is expanding their prison membership by providing dues-free options for inmates and allowing them to act as full union members. A targeted approach to connect the two groups of “Fellow Workers,” with a newsletter specifically for incarcerated members going into correctional institutions.
On the morning of Friday, September 9 these workers will lead the charge in a public strike, where prison facilities and private contracting sites will slow down, or come to a halt altogether. Prisoners who are in containment units where they are prevented from working will find some measure of participation, slowing down the regular functions of the prison to send a message that prisoners have power in the prison in the same way workers have power in a workplace.
Organizers from the larger coalition, including chapters of IWOC, Anarchist Black Cross, the Free Alabama Movement and others, will be doing solidarity actions in cities and in front of corrections centers around the country. There will be rallies and march events in Portland, Oakland, Los Angeles, Phoenix, Chicago, Atlanta, Durham, Providence, and others, and a least three dozen cities will have noise demonstrations at prison locations, teach-ins, and other public community events. Protesters from around the Northeast will also descend on Attica, a prison that has been in this struggle for 45 years.
This day of action relies on a massive build up that has happened over the summer; with support actions and educational events raising the campaign’s profile. This coordinated action could make it the largest prison strike action in modern memory, and with September 9 only as a start date it could mean months of actions to follow.
This ongoing battle is not just one of material conditions, but of changing the discourse about prisons themselves, what leads workers to become inmates, and what stake we have in their reform.
“I think that there is this idea that prisoners have done something wrong and hence deserve to be punished,” says Crispino, the IWOC organizer, who has been bridging the community with incarcerated organizers.
“We’re trying to really break that mentality because the reality of the situation is that most of the crimes for which prisoners are currently incarcerated are crimes of poverty. We know that the state writes laws that are in the best interests of the ruling class, not in the best interests of the community.”
The prison labor system has very real effects in workplaces since companies are able to artificially suppress wages because the option of prison labor is a low-cost alternative. This incentivizes American companies to shrink their well-paid workforce and bring labor at slave-wages, something organizers note has been a key part of the coordinated corporate attack on labor. Companies that manufacture products in prisons still get a “Made in the USA” logo, an ironic adornment for a corporate culture exploiting the most vulnerable labor population in the country.
At the same time, in an increasingly volatile economy and with ongoing struggles against police repression, there is no reason to believe that anyone is completely free from the threat of incarceration.
“We’re all working-class folks, on the inside and outside,” points out Louis Chavez, an organizer with IWOC and the Black Rose Anarchist Federation in Rochester, New York.
“A lot of us have been working low-wage jobs for decades…work and education opportunities have been pretty grim for a long time. We’re all a step away from being on the inside.”
IWOC organizers know that this is not just a struggle to make noise on the 9th, but an ongoing battle to undo an entire system of incarceration that acts as enforcement in an unequal system of capital. Here the struggle is to reframe conversations about the prison-industrial complex and what “organized labor” actually looks like.
Organizers say solidarity is key, the notion of collective action that the IWW has built its fighting reputation on. Both on the inside and the outside.
Shane Burley is a writer, filmmaker, and organizer based in Portland, Oregon. His work has appeared at places like Truthout, Labor Notes, In These Times, Waging Nonviolence and the Anarcho-Syndicalist Review. His work can be found at ShaneBurley.net.