‘Biggest prison strike in history’ wraps up

Law, in order: The USA has the world’s biggest prison population by quite a margin.

Over the past weeks prisoners in the USA have refused to do their jobs. Their grievance: the very existence of these jobs. How does prison labour work? And does it really count as ‘slavery’?

‘In one voice… we prisoners across the United States vow to finally end slavery in 2016.’

So began the announcement of a prisoners’ strike that swept the USA on September 9th. The nation has a history of prison protests; this one coincided with the 45th anniversary of the infamous Attica uprising. They are becoming increasingly common.

The media have little access to America’s prisons, and so hard facts on this latest strike are scarce. But anecdotal evidence suggests wide-ranging action. According to IWOC, a group that helped co-ordinate it, some 20,000 prisoners took part in ‘the biggest prison strike in history’. Reports of sporadic protests continued for weeks.

A strike from what? Of the nation’s 2.22 million prisoners, around 900,000 are employed in labour over which they have little say. While past protests have touched on various issues, from overcrowding to harsh parole systems, this one centred on the very issue of forced labour – or slavery, as the strikers call it.

The labour takes many forms. Some inmates work for the state or even the prison itself – in the kitchen, say. Others are leased out to the private sector, where they operate call centres or sew uniforms for the likes of McDonald’s. They are lucky to get a few dollars an hour. Some are paid nothing at all.

This is legal. The 13th Amendment to the US Constitution, which abolished slavery, provided an exception for convicted criminals. Nowadays the government stresses that such labour teaches prisoners skills that help them ease back into society.

Yet the system’s critics claim that it leads to corruption. In her book The New Jim Crow, law professor Michelle Alexander argues that some states, lured by the promise of cheap labour, have aggressively incarcerated their people – especially blacks. In effect, one kind of slavery replaced another.

This argument was taken up by the strikers of September 9th, who called for that legal loophole to be closed. Was their talk of slavery fair, or mere hyperbole?

Striking a blow

Prison is partly about punishment, say some. Labouring for less than minimum wage is a just penalty. But it is also about rehabilitation. As well as giving them a sense of purpose, these jobs equip inmates for the workplace after prison. No wonder studies show that those who have done prison labour are less likely to reoffend.

Prison labour is not rehabilitative, counter others: it is exploitative. Wages are abysmal, rights are nonexistent, and the skills acquired are rarely useful in the outside world. It incentivises the government to keep the prison population up. Oh, and it sucks jobs out of the economy. It is wrong in principle and harmful in practice. It must end.

You Decide

  1. Would you be put off a company’s products if you learned that they had been made by prisoners? Why (not)?
  2. How much access should prisons grant journalists?


  1. Some prisons run pen pal schemes that allow people to write to inmates. Imagine you have signed up to one. Write a letter of introduction to your pen pal.
  2. While incarcerated, prisoners are stripped of some rights, such as the right to vote. These vary from country to country. Come up with a list of rights you think they should lose, and justify it to the class.

Some People Say...

“Those who deny freedom to others deserve it not for themselves.”

Abraham Lincoln

What do you think?

Q & A

Why haven’t I heard of this strike?
Put simply: it was largely ignored by the mainstream media. The reasons for that are more complex. Prisons don’t have to disclose details of the protests, so journalists have a hard time covering them. Cynics might add that the public is not interested in prisons except when there’s violence, and these protests were mostly peaceful.
How was the strike organised?
Prisoners can write letters, make calls and speak to outsiders. This, with help from groups such as IWOC, is historically how they have co-ordinated protests. Now, however, they have a powerful new tool: social media. Accounts are managed by the inmates themselves, sometimes with the help of contraband mobiles, or by others on their behalf. Social media was crucial to the September 9th strike.

Word Watch

See the full text in Become An Expert.
Attica uprising
On September 9th 1971, around a thousand inmates at New York’s Attica Correctional Facility rioted and took control of the prison, demanding more rights and better living conditions. The uprising was violently suppressed; some died.
Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee. The group liaises between inmates in different prisons and helps organise joint protests.
2.22 million
Source: International Centre for Prison Studies. This figure is the highest in the world.
This is true of several states, notably Texas and Arkansas.
The New Jim Crow
‘Jim Crow’ refers to the laws that segregated white and black populations in the US South until they were repealed in 1965. They are named after a black minstrel character in 19th-century popular culture.
Alexander writes that the US law enforcement system, particularly its so-called War on Drugs, is disproportionately harsh on African Americans. They account for an eighth of the country’s population, but over a third of its prisoners.
Minimum wage

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