The largest prison strike in American history, beginning on September 9, the anniversary of the 1971 Attica prison riot, lasted for weeks. But it has been completely side-tracked by the mainstream media.
Organisers in 24 states have used smuggled phones and social media to urge other inmates to act ‘against slavery in America’. The unifying concern is the $2 billion a year private industry using prisoners to manufacture their goods for little to no money. Other sources of concern are the ill-treatment of prisoners, inhumane living conditions, and medical neglect.
Details of the strikes are scarce, with many correctional facilities refusing to disclose any information. Whilst the Alabama Department of Corrections has refused to comment, the corrections departments of Ohio and California, where strikes are known to have taken place, have denied that their prisoners are participating in the strike at all.
The scale of the strike is unprecedented, with an estimated 20,000 prisoners participating. Prison staff are clamping down hard on the strikers. Several prisons have been put on lock-down without giving outsiders any explanation as to why. Other facilities have sent inmates into solitary confinement and deprived them of their communication privileges. Previous strikes against unpaid labour in Alabama resulted in prison staff almost starving the inmates.
In Texas, it is thought that as a preemptive response to the warning given to the facilities of an upcoming strike, prisoners were forbidden from maintaining a social media presence, even if it was created by a third-party outsider. However, Facebook has censored prisoner profiles and pages for years. The Electronic Frontier Foundation reported that from at least 2011, prison officials and Facebook have had a ‘special arrangement’ where prisons could send Facebook links for prisoners’ profiles and pages that they wanted removed. Facebook would comply, ‘often with no questions asked.’
Nonetheless, there is some outside support for the prisoners. Many US cities and a couple of foreign countries have staged their own rallies and demonstrations in support of the strikers. Due to the ‘media blackout’ surrounding the issue, it is unlikely that any larger strikes will take place.
The systemic neglect of prisoners’ welfare and constitutional rights has resulted in a steep rise in strikes since protests in Georgia, North Carolina, Illinois, Washington, and Virginia during 2010. This was followed by a 2013 hunger strike in California, which garnered over 30,000 inmates protesting against the overuse and misuse of solitary confinement.
The protest of September 9 is primarily to call for the repeal of the 13th Amendment in the US Constitution, which prohibits ‘involuntary servitude…except as a punishment’. The strike aimed to educate the American public about the forced labour imminent in correctional facilities across the US; ‘A nation that imprisons 1% of its population has an obligation to know what is happening to those 2.4 million people’.
Despite whether you believe prisons should be a centre for punishment, subjecting inmates to slavery for the benefit of private corporations is undesirable. We are effectively enabling prisoners to take away jobs that used to pay Americans respectable wages. If we were to allow inmates to work for no money, it seems more reasonable that they work for and give back to the state, as opposed to profit motivated corporations.