New US Prison Strike Takes us to the Dark Heart of Capitalism

One year ago the largest prison labour strike in US history took place. More than 24,000 prisoners across 29 prisons in 12 states protested against exploitation and inhumane conditions. It was timed to mark the anniversary of the Attica Prison uprising(1) of 46 years ago over prisoners' demands for better living conditions and political rights. Attica prisoners rioted and took control of the prison, taking 42 staff hostage. When the uprising was over, at least 43 people were dead, including ten prison staff, and 33 inmates.

One year on, another major prison strike is now spreading across the US and Canada which has entered into its second week. The strike began on August 21 and is set to last a total of 19 days. Naturally, it has been subjected to a media blackout by the mainstream media in the US; and reliable information about the progress of the strike is difficult to come by.

Prison reform advocacy groups liaising with strike organisers, have reported that protests had been confirmed in three states, with further unconfirmed reports emerging from Florida, Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina as well as Washington State and up to Nova Scotia in Canada.

One of the intentions of the prisoners in the current dispute is to bring to public attention the spate of deaths in custody, which in some states has reached epidemic proportions. In Mississippi, 10 inmates(2) have died in their cells in the past three weeks alone, with no firm indication of the cause of their deaths.

In addition to concern over unexplained deaths of prison inmates, the strikers, led by a network of incarcerated activists who call themselves Jailhouse Lawyers Speak(3), have put out a set of 10 demands(4) to reform the US’s penal system, including more investment in rehabilitation services and better medical treatment for mentally-ill prisoners. High up on the list is an end to forced or underpaid labour that the protesters call a form of modern slavery.

Among the main tactics that are being deployed in the strike are a refusal to work, a boycott of purchases at prison commissaries, sit-ins and hunger strikes.

Filling the Prisons

In 2016 there were 2.29 million people in US prisons which is equivalent to 716 per 100 000 of the population. This is one of the highest rates of incarceration in the world. (In England and Wales the equivalent number is 144 per 100 000 of the population.) The vast majority of prisoners in the US are working class, and a disproportionate number of them are African-Americans and Hispanics. In states like Virginia and Oklahoma one in every 15 African American men(5) is put in prison. This is no accident since these groups predominantly come from some of the most deprived parts of towns and cities in the US. It is also no accident that the US bourgeoisie has been deliberately targeting these groups by passing draconian sentences on them in order to fill up the prisons. This policy accelerated in 1994 with the introduction of the “three-strikes law.”(6) These laws require a person guilty of committing both a severe violent felony and two other previous convictions to serve a mandatory life sentence in prison. In California, these convictions can even be minor and a prisoner is sentenced for life.

In this way, the US has been able to readily fill up its prisons with cheap labour and keep them filled. For example, from 1982 to 2000, California's prison population increased 500%. To accommodate this population growth, the state of California built 23 new prisons at a cost of $280 million to $350 million apiece.(7) California is by no means unique in showing such a phenomenal growth in prisons and prison populations. While California’s prisons are public and are financed by the Public Works Department and operated by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation; many other states encourage the building of private prisons. New Mexico incarcerates over 40% of its prison population in private facilities. Private prisons in the US incarcerated 128,063 people in 2016, representing 8.5% of the total state and federal prison population. Since 2000, the number of prisoners in private prisons has increased 47%.(8)

The United States Congress, influenced by enormous corporate lobbying, enacted the Prison Industry Enhancement Certification Programme(9) in 1979, which permitted US companies to use prison labour. Coupled with the drastic increase in the prison population during this period, and particularly after 1994, profits for participating companies and revenue for the government and its private contractors soared. The Federal Bureau of Prisons now runs a programme called Federal Prison Industries (UNICOR)(10) that pays inmates under one dollar an hour. The programme generated $500m in sales in 2016 with very little of that cash being passed down to prison workers. California's prison labour programme produced some $232m in sales in 2017. Prison labour in the US is referred to as insourcing. Under the Work Opportunity Tax Credit (WOTC), employers receive a tax credit of $2,400 for every work-release inmate they employ as a reward for hiring “risky target groups.”

Your Favourite Brands

Prison labour is a billion-dollar industry, and the corporate beneficiaries of this slave labour include some of the largest corporations and most widely known brands. There are literally hundreds of corporations and firms that exploit prison labour. According to the Left Business Observer, the federal prison industry produces 100% of all military helmets, war supplies and other equipment.

Prison workers supply 98% of the entire market for equipment assembly services; 93% of paints and paintbrushes; 92% of stove assembly; 46% of body armour; 36% of h