Incarcerated people in at least 17 states are refusing to work, in some cases for jobs that pay as little as 4 cents an hour.
Inmates in prisons across the country launched a massive strike on Tuesday, calling for an end to what organizers call “inhuman” treatment in the criminal justice system.
The national coordinated effort will include “work stoppages, sit-in strikes, commissary boycotts, and hunger strikes,” depending on the circumstances of each prison, according to an August 18 blog post from strike spokesperson Amani Sawari Mi. The three-week strike is organized by a network of prisoners’ rights advocates called Jailhouse Lawyers Speak. The group is based out of Lee Correctional Institution in South Carolina, where an April 15 riot killed seven inmates and injured 22 others.
The protest aims to bring an end to what organizers are calling “modern day slavery,” in which incarcerated workers are forced to work, earning as little as 4 cents an hour, according to a recent AP report. In California, inmates were helping firefighters confront the state’s deadliest wildfire for just $2 a day plus $1 an hour.
In a national press release, the protesters put forward a list of 10 demands, including “an immediate end to prison slavery,” as well as concerns over prison conditions, life without parole, racial discrimination, health and rehabilitation care, financial aid for education, and voting rights.
The three-week protest started and will end on significant dates. August 21 marked the anniversary of black prison activist George Jackson’s 1971 murder, and will run until September 9, the same date as the Attica Prison Riots, one of America’s bloodiest, most public prison protests in recent memory.
“Prisoners understand they are being treated as animals,” Jailhouse Lawyers Speak wrote in a statement on the strike. “For some of us it’s as if we are already dead. So what do we have to lose?”
It’s unclear whether participants, which include inmates from at least 17 states, will experience penal retaliation for their role in the strike.
An assistant warden from Lee Correctional Institution told The Daily Beast: “We are aware of the strike and its demands. We work diligently to ensure the safety of our inmates.”
Shortly after the strike was announced, the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee, a prisoner-led workers’ rights group, pledged their support. Monday morning, the national arm of the Democratic Socialists of America also endorsed the strike. DSA, which skyrocketed onto the national stage in 2016 after Senator Bernie Sanders’ presidential bid, has gained steam in recent months, following the primary victories of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Rashida Tlaib.
“In our society we allocate resources to racist policing instead of to rehabilitation. The conditions in prisons are horrific,” DSA National Director Maria Svart told The Daily Beast. “We consider the way incarcerated people are treated in this county to be modern day slavery. This is a strike that incarcerated folks are leading and we are standing in solidarity with them.”
There are more than 2.3 million people incarcerated in state and federal prisons, jails and juvenile correction facilities, according to data from the Prison Policy Initiative.
“Striking the match, let it go up in a blaze,” Jailhouse Lawyers Speak wrote in their statement. “We are humans!”