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There’s an Enormous Prison Strike Going On—But You Haven’t Heard About It

Bill Weinberg

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Amid a shameful paucity of media coverage, inmates at facilities in several states have organized work stoppages since Sept. 9—the anniversary of the 1971 Attica prison uprising. Organizers say inmates in at least 29 prisons in 12 states have launched strikes, with an unprecedented more than 24,000 prisoners participating.

“This is a call to end slavery,” reads the official call for the strike, issued by the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee. “They cannot run these facilities without us.” While there have been prison strikes before—two earlier this year, in Texas and Alabama—this marks the first one to be nationally coordinated. Prisoners are using social media and smuggled cell phones to organize the national strike.

Yet this is getting coverage primarily in alternative sources like Mother Jones and The Intercept. Regional newspapers have covered local prison strikes—the Miami Herald reported Sept. 13 on the strike at Florida’s Columbia Correctional, where inmates engaged in “civil disobedience” by refusing officers’ orders and taking control of at least one dorm. The account noted it was the fifth “inmate uprising” in Florida within a week.

Similarly, the Detroit Free Press on Sept. 21 reported on the “uprising” at the Kinross Correctional Facility in Kincheloe, Mich., where what began as a strike apparently escalated to a “riot”—promoting authorities to send in “emergency response teams” and transfer out some 150 suspected organizers to other facilities.

The strike appears strongest in Alabama, where the inmate-led Free Alabama Movement has actually issued an “Alabama Freedom Bill“—a proposed law that would apply the state minimum wage to mandatory labor in the state’s prisons. It also calls for Alabaama to reduce its prison population down to the state system’s designed capacity of approximately 13,500. (It currently stands at over 29,000.)  The bill charges that Alabama’s Corrections Department “is now running a multi-billion dollar free/cheap labor corporation by targeting black and other poor citizens for incarceration, while committing other civil and human rights abuses in the living conditions, sentences imposed…and other exploitive practices that are all beyond recourses of law.”

Alabama inmates are paid a maximum of 30 cents an hour to manufacture license plates, serve food, and clean, according to Prison Legal News. One Alabama prison has an inmate-staffed recycling plant, and another has a farm where inmates grow and harvest all of the crops..

In three states—Texas, Arkansas, and Georgia—prisoners are paid nothing for their work, while in federal prisons they earn only up to 40 cents an hour. Refusal to work can be punished with solitary confinement—or even having sentences lengthened.

Last month’s decision by the federal Justice Department to stop using private for-profit prisons briefly put a spotlight on these issues. In a sign of progress, a privately operated Mississippi prison determined to be effectively run by gangs in collusion with corrupt guards was ordered closed by authorities, the New York Times reported Sept. 15. Conditions at the the Walnut Grove Correctional Facility were so harsh that US Judge Carlton Reeves, writing in a 2012 settlement order, found that it “paints a picture of such horror as should be unrealized anywhere in the civilized world.”

This has been building for a while. Alabama’s Holman prison saw a violent uprising earlier this year. An inmate hunger strike over harsh conditions and over-crowding in California’s prisons in 2013 saw one death before it ended. Hopefully, the national media will start paying some attention to the current historic strike, and head off further needless violence and death.

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