Exactly 45 years after one of the most famous prison uprisings in history, America's inmates are standing up once again for their rights in a coordinated effort to bring the labor mechanisms of the country's penal system to a grinding halt.
On September 9, inmates in prisons across the U.S. will participate in a work stoppage designed to highlight the injustices faced by those behind bars who are toiling in the prison labor force. In federal prisons, inmates are paid between 12 and 40 cents per hour for jobs like painting, plumbing, or groundskeeping—jobs that are mandatory unless a prisoner is medically incapacitated.
"Work is good for anyone," Melvin Ray, an inmate in the Alabama penal system, told Mother Jones in a story about the strike. "The problem is that our work is producing services that we're being charged for, that we don't get any compensation from."
In their call to action announcing Friday's strike, organizers framed prison work in unambiguous terms, comparing it to slavery:
Prisoners are forced to work for little or no pay. That is slavery. The 13th amendment to the US constitution maintains a legal exception for continued slavery in US prisons. It states “neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States.” Overseers watch over our every move, and if we do not perform our appointed tasks to their liking, we are punished. They may have replaced the whip with pepper spray, but many of the other torments remain: isolation, restraint positions, stripping off our clothes and investigating our bodies as though we are animals.
In fact, actions like this are nothing new.
Earlier this spring, inmates organized in what they call the "Free Alabama Movement" succeeded in engineering a coordinated work stoppage at a number of facilities across that state. In 2013, inmates at California's Pelican Bay prison launched a hunger strike in protest of long term housing in solitary confinement. Those efforts ballooned to include 30,000 people across the state's penal system, and helped focus national, and international, attention on the cruel practice.
But it's the 1971 uprising at the Attica prison in New York that has arguably become the most iconic moment in the modern struggle for prisoners' rights. There, inmates took control of the prison to demand better living conditions and political rights in a case that captivated the nation, and established September 9 as important date for the criminal justice movement.
In addition to the work stoppage slated to occur in the prisons themselves, allies and activists are expected to gather in solidarity for "noise demonstrations," and rallies outside prisons across the country, as well.
"We're realistic. We know that all our demands aren't going to be given to us," strike organizer Philip Ruiz, a member of the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee who served nearly a decade in the California penal system, explained to Mother Jones. "The hope is that some concrete things develop as far as changing the conditions."
"You guys aren't going to get away with what you're doing to prisoners anymore."