Over a month ago, the largest prison strike in the history of the U.S. began. Prisoners in 24 states and 40 to 50 prisons pledged to join the strike, according to the Intercept. As of Sunday, actions had been reported at facilities in Alabama, Michigan, Washington state, South Carolina, Ohio and California over the past four weeks, according to BuzzFeed.
While demands vary from prison to prison, the striking inmates are homing in on a singular issue: Prison slavery. Although most U.S. history classes teach that the 13th Amendment outlawed slavery entirely, this is not the case. For convicts, modern-day slavery is explicitly legal, according to the Constitution itself.
The 13th Amendment reads, in full: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States.”
The day the strike began, the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee (IWOC), a division of the union Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), released a statement.
“They may have replaced the whip with pepper spray, but many of the other torments remain: Isolation, restraint positions, stripping off our clothes and investigating our bodies as though we are animals,” the statement reads.
Prison conditions are horrifying across the board. In at least three states – Texas, Arkansas and Georgia – prisoners are not paid anything for their labor, according to Mother Jones. In federal prisons, inmates earn about 12 to 40 cents an hour.
At Kinross Correctional Facility in Kincheloe, Michigan, one of the main reasons prisoners are striking is the low quality and quantity of food, which even correctional officers have protested, according to BuzzFeed. The food there is often spoiled and contains maggots. Prior to the strike, wages decreased, while commissary prices for packaged food increased, essentially forcing inmates to eat maggot-ridden meals and potentially violating the Eighth Amendment, which prohibits cruel and unusual punishment.
Despite these more-than-justified complaints, striking inmates face serious consequences for their defiance – consequences that would be considered not only unreasonable, but inhumane anywhere outside of prison. Correctional facilities are theoretically meant to reflect U.S. law, but behind bars, anything goes. Wardens and correctional officers play God with prisoners they deem to be the scum of the earth.
At the Washington Corrections Center for Women in Gig Harbor, Washington, three prisoners did not report to their jobs in the prison library on Sept. 9. All three were required to spend 20 days in solitary confinement for participating in the strike, and they lost their library positions.
At Kinross, the strike took place on a larger scale. The first day of the movement, 400 prisoners marched in the yard in violation of prison rules. Although the marching inmates were peaceful, everyone was placed in the yard with their wrists zip-tied for several hours. A total of 250 prisoners involved in the march’s organization were relocated to prevent another protest.
The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) announced last Thursday, Oct. 6 that it would be opening an investigation into the conditions of Alabama’s prisons for men. Holman Correctional Facility in Atmore, Alabama is one of the facilities where the strike originated.
According to the DOJ statement, the investigation will focus on whether prisoners are adequately protected from physical harm and sexual abuse at the hands of other prisoners; whether prisoners are adequately protected from use of excessive force and staff sexual abuse by correctional officers; and whether the prisons provide sanitary, secure and safe living conditions.
While the DOJ investigation is a great first step, in the long run, it will not be enough. Slavery – an institution condemned by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights – cannot exist. It is despicable that it is constitutional in 2016. Organizers have called for a repeal of the clause in the 13th Amendment that slavery be used “as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.” The IWOC is asking for support on its website.
The next set of labor actions will begin Saturday, Oct. 15.
Photo courtesy Thomas Hawk, Creative Commons