During the early hours of September 9, 1971, nearly half of the Attica Correctional Facility’s inmate population overtook control of the New York prison. They held 42 staff members hostage for a total of four days in attempts to negotiate better living conditions and protection of their rights, making it one of the largest Prisoners’ Rights Movements. Tensions escalated after Governor Nelson Rockefeller refused to meet with the prisoners, resulting in 43 deaths, and very few tangible improvements, apart from raising awareness of the inmates’ bleak situation.
45 years later in 2016, a labor strike emerged in prisons in at least 24 states at both the state and federal level, demanding “an end to ‘“slave-like’ working conditions, illegal reprisals, and inhumane living conditions,” reports The Nation. Inmates can be paid as little as $0.12 to $0.40 per hour, significantly lower than the $7.25 federal minimum wage, an amount that is highly contested as failing to amount to a living wage. Imprisoned individuals rarely, if ever, are able to raise their wages up to $4 per hour.
This has two important implications. First, this severely diminishes one’s ability for socioeconomic stability and mobility upon release, during a time when individuals are most vulnerable in living and employment prospects, possibly helping to explain why over two-thirds of released prisoners end up back in prison within three years of release. Second, this pitiful wage institutionalizes inhumanely cheap labor for the government and private companies to exploit. In fact, there exist states that hold the right not to pay their inmate workers anything at all for their labor, including Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia and Texas, essentially constituting forced unpaid labor.
If the federal/state governments and private corporations outsource jobs regularly for cheaper labor, why would they not do the same for America’s most vulnerable population? While this certainly is not the only reason, it may help to explain why despite making up 5% of the world’s population, the U.S. holds 25% of the world’s prisoners. Of course, American prisoners are not representative of the American populace. Instead, black males are incarcerated at 6.5 times the rate of white males and black females at three times the rate of white females, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS).
The War on Drugs has granted incredible power to law enforcement agencies to target and maintain the status quo of racial injustice. While black and white marijuana use remains nearly identical, the former is 3.73 times more likely to be arrested for an alleged crime than their white counterpart. But it does not end with targeting drug possessors, users, or distributors. Drivers are more likely to be stopped on the road if they are Hispanic (7%) or black (6%) than if they are white (2%), according to the BJS, often leading to escalated interactions between law-abiding citizens and police officers, such as in the recorded executions of Philando Castile and countless others.
Upon arresting minority populations at a far greater rate than their white counterparts for similar crimes or lawful existence, private, state and federal prisons are allowed to have their inmates work long hours in miserable conditions and are often denied appropriate workers’ compensation for any work-related injuries, refused medical care and attention when needed, and denied the ability to unionize, contest work conditions, or take time off work.
The Federal Bureau of Prisons requires all prisoners to work if they are medically capable. And of course, the several cents an hour prisoners make is subject to taxes, taxes that will help pay for the mass incarceration that effectively enslaves over 2.3 million people, people who lose their rights not only in prison, but afterwards, as well. While each state varies on the rights that felons permanently lose, these often include the right to vote, the Second Amendment right to bear arms, the ability to travel abroad, employment in many fields, and public social benefits, including food stamps and public housing.
While the loss of certain rights may be justified on the potential threat convicted felons may pose to the public, it must be acknowledged that most of these attempt to extend punishments past prison sentences in an effort to make life more difficult for this population. The recovery of released prisoners and the well-being of those currently imprisoned, 1% of our population, has never been our priority. In the allegedly most free and progressive nation to exist in human history, we still allow up to 23 hours in solitary confinement, a punishment that had included juvenile offenders until very recently.
This is why the September 9 inmate worker protest was monumental. Although largely ignored by the media, over 24,000 inmates refused to work in grossly inhumane instances of forced labor. They are trying to shed light on the fact that the 13th Amendment quite literally constitutionalized slavery and indentured servitude “as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted,” while ending slavery and indentured servitude for non-imprisoned populations but establishing it for inmates.
It is time we admit that America runs many of its private corporations through private, state, and federal prisons on cheap or unpaid forced labor in working conditions that would be declared abhorrent in any other setting. It is time we afford proper medical, educational, and rehabilitative care to our inmate population, one that is discriminatorily comprised of certain groups of people over others. It is time we reform a law enforcement system that enables extrajudicial executions of its citizenry. It is time we rethink our nonviolent crime laws that mandate minimum sentences without opportunities for parole. It is about time we end slavery in America.