By Jessica Lussenhop BBC News Magazine
The US is currently in the midst of the largest prisoner strike in its history. Prison reform in the US has typically been in the hands of politicians and activists – but now the actual inmates want their say.
On Sept. 9, the 45th anniversary of a bloody 1971 prison uprising in Attica, New York, inmates at prisons throughout the US staged a coordinated strike in an estimated 11 states.
The epicentre of the protest movement is the troubled William C Holman Correctional Facility in Alabama and a group of inmates and allies there called the Free Alabama Movement. FAM partnered with the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee to spread the word to various prisons through direct mailings and prisoner news publications.
Inmates have even found ways to communicate about the strike using social media accounts, which can be maintained by friends and family on the outside.
“That’s very difficult to organize, and this is, even taking the most conservative version of the facts, the largest prisoner strike in recent memory,” says David Fathi, director of the ACLU National Prison Project.
The goals were many, but among them is an end to cheap prison labor. In the US, prison inmates do all sorts of work, from fighting fires, to sewing undergarments, to farming the land and cleaning up road kill on the highways.
For these kinds of duties they can be paid as little as 15 cents an hour.
While private companies do contract with prisons for cheap labor, Alex Friedmann, the managing editor of Prison Legal News, says the vast majority of the work is to help run and maintain the prison facilities themselves.
“Prisons really work off the back of prisoners,” he says, noting that inmates do not receive minimum wage, worker’s compensation or overtime and cannot unionize. Most of their money ends up spent at the prison’s commissary or to use the phones.
“They cannot run these facilities without us,” reads one piece of organising literature. “We hope to end prison slavery by making it impossible, by refusing to be slaves any longer.”
The strike’ end goal, according to the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee – is that by raising prison wages, costs for the institutions will go up and the profitability of contracting out prison labor will go down, eliminating any profit-making incentives for incarceration.
Prison reform has been a huge topic of conversation in the US for some time. The federal government just announced that it will end its use of private, for-profit prisons. Several state governments have elected to either scale back or at least study their use of solitary confinement.
The Federal Communications Commission began capping the rates that prisoners have to pay to call the outside world – rates that previously could be as high as $1 a minute.