Inmates on strike: Will it shift the conversation about US prisoners' rights?

A nationwide inmate strike could lead to more public conversations about reforming America's criminal justice system.

An unidentified death row inmate in the North Condemned Unit at Pontiac Correctional Institution in Illinois, Jan. 2003. Inmates at prisons across the country staged a work stoppage starting Friday to demand higher wages and better living conditions.

On the 45th anniversary of the Attica Prison riots, in which inmates demanded political rights and better living conditions, prisoners across the United States staged a work stoppage that started last Friday in one of the first prison strikes ever coordinated on a national level.

The incarcerated protesters have demanded they receive more workers' rights to end conditions they characterize as “slave labor.” And, unlike in Attica in 1971, they are engaging in an ongoing, public conversation.

The work stoppages came as bipartisan consensus has begun to coalesce around prison reforms, with President Obama and his administration announcing last month that private prisons will be phased out this year. The protests fit into a larger narrative about how to transition the country’s criminal justice system out of the so-called mass incarceration era, marked by three-strike policies and mandatory minimum sentences popularized in the 1990s.

“For those of us who lived through that time, the contrast from the current climate is stunning,” says David Fathi, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Prison Project. “The recent strikes are just one manifestation among many of the higher visibility and the greater significance of these issues in public conversation,” he tells The Christian Science Monitor in a phone interview Monday.  

Prisoners including in correctional facilities in Alabama, California, Florida, Michigan, North and South Carolinas, and Virginia refused to leave their cells starting this past Friday to perform mandatory labor, according to Azzurra Crispino, media co-chair of the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee (IWOC), which aims to serve as a liaison for prisoners to unionize. It was reported facilities in Texas were on lockdown because of work stoppages, but IWOC was unable to confirm that news with inmates yet, according to Ms. Crispino. She confirmed Thursday some of the protests were ongoing. 

Prisoners planned the work stoppage from behind bars through organizations that include the Free Alabama Movement, Free Ohio Movement, Free Mississippi Movement, and the End Prison Slavery in Texas movement, according to Mother Jones. The IWOC supported the protests from the outside.

“This is a call for a nation-wide prisoner work stoppage to end prison slavery,” reads a statement the IWOC posted on its website in April. “They cannot run these facilities without us.”

Is prison labor right?

The demands of the prisoners that staged the work stoppage vary. A faction would like to see the prison system abolished, while many have demanded better pay and working conditions. 

Inmates in American prisons generally hold jobs to maintain their facilities. Most prisoners do such work as landscaping, cleaning, and performing kitchen work. The wages they are paid vary from state. According to the Federal Prison Bureau, inmates in federal prisons earn 12 to 40 cents an hour. In at least three states – Arkansas, Georgia, and Texas – prisoners are not paid at all.

A small percentage of total inmates have worked on jobs under government contracts or for private companies such as Victoria’s SecretWhole Foods, or Walmart.

Independent studies have confirmed an argument of some wardens: Prison labor is a positive form of rehabilitation. According to a 2007 study by the National Institute of Justice, inmates who worked for private companies while they served time found work faster, were employed longer, and had lower recidivism rates once they were released than inmates who didn’t. However, paying them wages competitive to the outside is a complicated legal, economic, and moral issue. 

For one thing, prisoners lack constitutional rights that protect them from being forced to work, courtesy of an exclusion clause in the Thirteenth Amendment. The amendment abolished slavery and involuntary servitude "except as punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted."

 This exclusion clause raises a moral question, as Whitney Benns wrote for The Atlantic.

Don’t workers behind bars deserve less than equal treatment? she asks rhetorically. “After all, they are murderers, criminals, all manner of sinners and deviants. People who do not behave like decent human beings do not merit being treated like decent human beings.”

Inmates have sued prison-employers over this question, insisting they comply with minimum-wage laws or workers' protection statutes. The courts, in ruling against inmates, have generally found the relationship between inmates and prison-employers is not just economic, but rather a "primarily social or penological nature," as Ms. Benns writes. 

Some have said prison labor is a way for prisoners to pay the public back. States’ correctional expenditures have nearly quadrupled over the past two decades. According to a 2012 analysis of 40 states by the Vera Institute of Justice, each inmate cost taxpayers an average of $31,286 per year. This number doesn't include the direct and indirect costs of crime on victims and communities, which likely amounts to hundreds of billions each year, according to an April report by the Obama administration on the criminal justice system.

Yet some prison-labor programs do provide compensation to inmates for their work, while also providing funding for correctional facilities and victims. Under the Private Industry Enhancement Certification Program (PIECP) Congress passed in 1979, more than half of an inmate's wages doesn't make it to their pocketbook; it goes to paying their room and board, restitution to crime victims, and child support and alimony to family members, according to the National Institute for Justice. But only a small fraction of inmates participate in this program. Facilities must become certified to enroll in the program, and inmates must volunteer for the work. 

The federal government has wrestled with requiring that inmates be paid the minimum wage. In 1993, for instance, the US Government Accountability Office, responding to a congressional request, researched how to pay prisoners the minimum wage. The agency found that while prisoners were not charged taxes or user fees, to pay them the minimum wage would lead to a substantial increase in facilities’ operating costs, and that these facilities “generally believed that paying the minimum wage would adversely affect prison work, job training programs, and prison security.” However, the atmosphere for prisoners’ rights and reform of the criminal justice system has changed since then.

A changing environment

Public conversations about Guantanamo Bay were one of the impetuses that led to more sympathy for inmates in the country’s prison system, according to Mr. Fathi of the ACLU. Prisoners at the military prison in Cuba went on publicized hunger strikes in 2013, well before Mr. Obama announced in February plans to close the detention camp.

The Obama administration has also taken other actions to reform the country’s criminal justice system, which has the highest number of inmates in the world (1.6 million). In July 2015, he became the first sitting president to visit a federal prison. In August of this year, the Department of Justice announced the US will phase out its use of private prisons by the end of the year, which came a week after the Justice Department's inspector general released a blistering report on the state of private prisons contracted by the federal government.

“This is a huge deal,” Carrie Pettus-Davis, an assistant professor at the Brown School of Social Work at Washington University in St. Louis, told the Monitor’s Henry Gass last month. “People are recognizing that who and how we incarcerate in the United States is inconsistent with the American value system, and that both who and how we incarcerate needs to change.”

The prison strikes come amid the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement in opposition to police misconduct and what the group says are other injustices against African-Americans.

The work stoppages aren't just about inmates being paid higher wages, however. It’s about the drive to make mass incarceration “no longer economically possible,” Crispino of the IWOC tells the Monitor in a phone interview. Raising prison wages, drives up the cost of incarceration for taxpayers. 

When asked what would replace prisons, Crispino said her organization advocates for rehabilitation systems. For nonviolent crimes, for example, convicted offenders could be placed in restorative justice programs, she says. For violent crimes, offenders could receive rehabilitation.  

Strikes for higher wages and better living conditions have occurred in many prisons across the country over the past several years. One of the largest coordinated inmate protests occurred in California in 2013, when 30,000 inmates across the state went on a hunger strike to protest solitary confinement and other penal conditions.

Prisons have historically been out of sight and out of mind for Americans, Michael Gibson-Light, an ethnographer and doctoral student at the University of Arizona who has researched prison currency, tells the Monitor. 

"All of these recent events bring prisons back into our view and encourage us to continue these conversations," he writes in an email. "Regardless of opinion, or partisanship, or philosophy, it is important for a democratic society to discuss these issues."

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