Weekdays are workdays at the Perry Correctional Institution in Pelzer, South Carolina, where Dee, a forty-two-year-old native of Georgia, has spent a decade serving time for a robbery.On typical mornings, he “commutes” from his cell to an on-site furniture factory, where he and other inmates assemble wooden tables and chairs for a private company. But when Dee’s cell door opened on September 9th, the forty-fifth anniversary of the Attica prison uprising, he did not respond as usual to the call to attention. Dee was on strike. “I quit,” he told me a few days ago, speaking via a contraband cell phone. “That was my last day of work.” Dee grew up poor and began committing crimes as a young man, but he had educated himself in prison and joined a group of “jailhouse lawyers” who assist other inmates with legal issues. More recently, Dee had begun to think of himself not just as a prison activist but as a worker. “We’re not compensated for our labor,” he told me. At Perry, inmates earn less than a dollar per hour in the furniture shop. “Slavery is inhumane, no matter its disguise.”
Dee hadn’t gone on strike alone. In the lead-up to this year’s Attica anniversary, the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee (iwoc), a project of the Industrial Workers of the World union, drew up plans for a national strike “against prison slavery,” to draw attention to the conditions in America’s jails and penitentiaries. Organizers had reached out to inmates and their families and friends through mailings, stealthy conference calls, and partnerships with lawyers and local advocates. The iwoc claims that since September 9th, thousands of prisoners, at dozens of facilities across the country, have participated in work stoppages, marches, and hunger strikes. At Perry, Dee estimated that three hundred and fifty of the facility’s fifteen hundred residents had refused to work at some point in the past three weeks. (Inmates are assigned not only to the furniture factory but also to kitchen, landscaping, and janitorial duty.) Similar reports have emerged from a handful of other South Carolina prisons, though the state’s Department of Corrections has denied that any work stoppages have occurred. Dee and other strikers in South Carolina had formulated a list of demands, which include real wages for private-industry jobs, adequate mental-health care, educational programs, and a reduction in life sentences.
The full scope of the strike is difficult to know, given its diffuse nature. Activist blogs and Facebook groups around the country began to mention it in early September, and some local newspapers, along with national outlets such as Truthout, the Intercept, and Mother Jones, have covered it since then. iwoc organizers complain of a “mainstream-media blackout,” but the relative silence about the story owes as much to the difficult task of reporting across razor wire. (I relied on the iwoc to get in touch with Dee, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of retribution.) As of Sunday, the iwoc claimed that inmates were continuing to protest in various ways, and that this had been just the “first wave of nationally coördinated strikes.”
Prison activists, like Dee, are couching their labor claims in terms of the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Passed in 1865 at the urging of President Abraham Lincoln, the Thirteenth Amendment declares, “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude . . . shall exist within the United States.” But a crucial exception was made for work performed “as a punishment for a crime,” a clause that has been used to deny wages to prisoners. By some estimates, the economic output of federal and state inmates now exceeds two billion dollars per year. The strike organizers contend that incarcerated men and women should be fairly paid for this work, and that the “punishment for a crime” exception should be repealed. They also believe, as illustrated by “13th,” Ava DuVernay’s upcoming Netflix documentary about mass incarceration, that the Amendment’s ban on servitude has been read too narrowly throughout its history—to allow for convict-leasing after the Civil War, racial caste statutes during Jim Crow, and broken-windows policing today. A broader interpretation of “slavery,” in their view, would transform the law into a tool for equality.
Last week, a prison activist who goes by the name Kinetik Justice spoke to Al Jazeera English from solitary confinement in Alabama’s Holman Correctional Facility. “I want to clarify that it is not ‘slave-like conditions’ in prison labor—this is actually institutional slavery,” he said. “Slavery was always about exploiting the labor of lower-class people in this country.” Kinetik Justice was participating in the iwoc strike, and by his count he’d been joined by several dozen fellow inmates. The situation at Holman received some national attention after guards reportedly failed to show up for their shifts on September 24th; the iwoc speculated that they had stayed home out of solidarity with the prisoners—but the guards may well have acted out of their own frustrations and fear. In the past several months, multiple violent riots have erupted at Holman, which, like many other Alabama facilities, is overcrowded and understaffed. A spokesman for the state’s corrections department confirmed to me that, on September 9th, forty-five inmates at Holman “took part in a work stoppage,” but denied that guards had staged any similar demonstrations.
The American labor movement has a long history of opposing “free” work performed by prisoners—on the theory that it undercuts wages on the outside—but neither the A.F.L.-C.I.O. nor the S.E.I.U., the nation’s two largest union umbrellas, have offered comment or support for the current strike. Since the Industrial Workers of the World, which is tiny by comparison, launched the iwoc, in 2014, some nine hundred inmates around the country have become card-carrying union members. Many more appear to have joined the strike. “The idea was, let’s have a work stoppage as a way of denying economic benefit to corporations,” iwoc spokeswoman Azzurra Crispino told me. “If prisoners were paid a minimum wage, we know perfectly well that we could not afford to incarcerate the number of people we do in this country.” (Quite a few large companies, including A.T. & T., McDonald’s, and Victoria’s Secret, have made use of unpaid and nominally paid work inside penitentiaries.)
Dee, the inmate on strike in South Carolina, explained that after he and his fellow inmates stopped working, their unit was “deadlocked,” meaning “no telephone, no canteen, no visitation.” The consequences of refusal, he said, ranged from loss of visitation privileges to solitary confinement. “It affects people’s parole,” he said. Dee has five more years on his sentence, but he told me that he felt compelled to go on strike, and that his sister and other family members supported his decision. He told me, “This demon has to be faced.”