Thousand of Prisoners Are Going On Strike to Protest “Slave Labor” (Video)
45 years ago today, Attica Prison in New York State became the unwitting headquarters of a days-long uprising which became a watershed moment in the broader movement for prisoner rights. At the heart of the uprising was a desire on the part of prisoners to be provided with better conditions, and to get their point across they took more than 40 civilians and officers hostage. The uprising was well organized and, in the eyes of many, was a success, given that many of the prisoners’ demands were met by prison staff. However, it was by no means a clean negotiation, with the release of tear gas, gunfire, and the deaths of innocent bystanders all taking place over the course of four contentious days.
Nearly half of a century later, the movement for prisoners’s rights is most commonly thought of in terms of things like mass incarceration, by which people of color and the poor are disproportionately sent to prison while White and wealthy counterparts are protected. And, while that is an undeniable reality in contemporary America, there is another slice of the prisoner’s rights pie that often goes unnoticed, and that is prison labor conditions. As such, thousands of prisoners across the country are today (September 9) acknowledging the historic events at Attica Prison in 1971 with a message of their own: prison labor conditions amount to modern-day slavery. Adding to the economic angle of the prisoner strike is the fact that, of the nearly one-million prisoners who work while behind bars, many of them are working for tech and corporate giants. “A lot of that work is for the prison itself or for the public sector, but corporations—Walmart, Victoria’s Secret, AT&T—contract work out to prisons, too,” writes Wired’s Emma Grey Ellis. Despite making just a few cents every hour, prisoners and the labor they provide translates into billions of dollars of revenue, making that economic relationship not unlike indentured servitude.
According to a report from Democracy Now!, “prisoners in at least 24 states are set to participate in a nationally coordinated strike” with complaints about “long-term isolation, inadequate healthcare, overcrowding, violent attacks and slave labor.” In the same report, an excerpt of an interview with one of the strike’s organizers, Melvin Brooks-Ray (who goes by Kinetik Justice), is included. Justice is the co-founder of the Free Alabama Movement, which argues that, among other things, “every citizen of the State of Alabama shall have the right to vote, and this Right shall not be denied to any person on account of a criminal conviction.” In speaking with Democracy Now!, Justice says of today’s events “these strikes are our method for challenging mass incarceration. As we understand it, the prison system is a continuation of the slave system, and which in all entities is an economical system.” Expressing frustration after not being able to get in contact with legislators, Justice adds “we understood that our incarceration was pretty much about our labor and the money that was being generated through the prison system, therefore we began organizing around our labor and used it as a means and a method in order to bring about reform in the Alabama prison system.”
For more on the 1971 Attica Prison uprising, Heads can check out another September 9 segment from Democracy Now!, in which a new book on the event is discussed, and where footage of the historic ordeal is included.
In Part 2 of that segment, the fight to close Attica Prison down entirely is examined, and it serves as an indication that, nearly 50 years later, not much has changed in the American prison system.
According to an in-depth report from Wired, a coordinated movement within the confines of prison walls was made possible, unsurprisingly, by technology. Of the coordinated effort, the report says, “[i]f they pull it off, it could be the biggest prison strike in U.S. history, potentially involving thousands of prisoners in dozens of state and federal facilities.” But it doesn’t happen without effective, unfiltered communication, something that isn’t so easily obtained inside a prison. “[I]t’s the tech forbidden to inmates that they’ve nevertheless managed to use to truly amplify their message,” writes Emma Grey Ellis. “Today, prisoners plan to take to Facebook and Twitter to protest and share their stories, and the question is: will prisons request those accounts be taken down?”
As Ellis explains, “modern technology has afforded [inmates] new, more private avenues for communication.” Along with the smuggling in of cell phones by guards and visitors, social media use is integral to the organizing efforts. But, of course, few prisoners have access to the internet themselves, so a reliance on outside help is just as important today as it was before the digital era. Additionally, “services also exist that will post to an inmate’s Facebook or Twitter page for a monthly fee,” explains Ellis. However, it isn’t just reliance on outside or pre-scheduled help that makes strikes like today’s possible. Sometimes it’s ingenuity of inmates who use the little bit of access they have to grow something much bigger.
Remember the Free Alabama Movement? It’s known as FAM for short, and it, as Ellis explains, has “Facebook and Twitter accounts, and even a YouTube channel that hosts videos of inmate testimonials and evidence of poor prison conditions.” Even with limited access to the internet, the inmates behind FAM have been able to “build relationships, connect people, start a movement, and reach out to the world.” As the report points out, any visibility of an organized prisoner movement on the internet is just as visible to prison officials, but sometimes shutting down the movement is more difficult than one would imagine. “[J]ust pointing out the existence of an inmate’s social media account usually isn’t enough to warrant its removal,” writes Ellis.
To learn more about today’s happenings and get involved with the movement for prisoner rights, Heads can explore the #PrisonStrike hashtag on Twitter.