Prisoners across the United States are launching a massive strike on Friday, on the 45th anniversary of the Attica prison uprising, to protest what they call modern-day slavery.
Organizers say the strike will take place in at least 24 states to protest inhumane living and working conditions, forced labor, and the cycle of the criminal justice system itself. In California alone, 800 people are expected to take part in the work stoppage. It is slated to be one of the largest strikes in history.
In the era of Black Lives Matter, the issues of racist policing, the school-to-prison pipeline, and other factors that contribute to the mass incarceration crisis are coming to the forefront of civil and human rights movements.
"Slavery is alive and well in the prison system, but by the end of this year, it won't be anymore," reads the call to action from groups including Support Prisoner Resistance, the Free Alabama Movement, and the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee (IWOC). "This is a call to end slavery in America."
Our protest against prison slavery is a protest against the school to prison pipeline, a protest against police terror, a protest against post-release controls. When we abolish slavery, they'll lose much of their incentive to lock up our children, they'll stop building traps to pull back those who they've released. When we remove the economic motive and grease of our forced labor from the US prison system, the entire structure of courts and police, of control and slave-catching must shift to accommodate us as humans, rather than slaves.
As the organizers explain in their call to action, "Certain Americans live every day under not only the threat of extra-judicial execution—as protests surrounding the deaths of Mike Brown, Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland, and so many others have drawn long overdue attention to—but also under the threat of capture, of being thrown into these plantations, shackled and forced to work."
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"Work is good for anyone," Melvin Ray, an inmate at the W.E. Donaldson Correctional Facility in Bessemer, Alabama, and Free Alabama Movement organizer, told Mother Jones on Friday. "The problem is that our work is producing services that we're being charged for, that we don't get any compensation from."
Prison wages, which range from a few cents to $1.15 an hour, are determined on a state-by-state basis; in many states, such as Texas, Arkansas, and Georgia, inmates are not paid at all. Meanwhile, items in the prison commissary are often hiked up from their market value, making them increasingly inaccessible to the inmates themselves. And as Prison Legal News editor Paul Wright explained to Mother Jones, those who refuse to work are subject to retaliation, including having their sentences lengthened or being held in solitary confinement.
The jobs themselves can vary from farming and manufacturing to doing call work for private phone companies such as AT&T and Verizon, as well as work that keeps the prison itself running, such as laundry or kitchen service.
Azzurra Crispino, media co-chair of the IWOC, told Shadowproof that the conditions are often dangerous. "We've had reports of people being asked to operate heavy machinery with standing water on the ground," she said. "In Texas, no air-conditioning, in a lot of the units. Last year, the heat in Texas was 116 degrees. You can imagine what it's like working in a kitchen, in a unit with no air conditioning."
The strike is only the first step in a sustained plan of resistance, the organizers said. The actions are scheduled to continue to "[build] the networks of solidarity and [show] that we're serious and what we're capable of."
To that end, the organizers are calling on supporters on the outside to take part in events around the country, including demonstrations, fundraising benefits, marches, discussions and film screenings, teach-ins and phone banking, and other efforts.
"Prison impacts everyone, when we stand up and refuse on September 9th, 2016, we need to know our friends, families, and allies on the outside will have our backs," the call to action reads. "Step up, stand up, and join us. Against prison slavery. For liberation of all."