Special Briefing: Inside the U.S. Prison Strike Protesting ‘Modern-Day Slavery' - OZY | A Modern Media Company

Special Briefing: Inside the U.S. Prison Strike Protesting ‘Modern-Day Slavery'

Special Briefing: Inside the U.S. Prison Strike Protesting ‘Modern-Day Slavery'

By OZY Editors

Inmates in the gym converted to a dormitory at the California Institution for Men in Chino, California.
SourceMonica Almeida/Redux


Because a society is only as good as those it treats the worst.

By OZY Editors

This is an OZY Special Briefing, an extension of the Presidential Daily Brief. The Special Briefing tells you what you need to know about an important issue, individual or story that is making news. Each one serves up an interesting selection of facts, opinions, images and videos in order to catch you up and vault you ahead.


What happened? Prison inmates across the United States started a nearly three-week-long strike Tuesday to protest what they call “modern-day slavery.” The strike is led by Jailhouse Lawyers Speak, a nationwide advocacy network of prisoners, and comes in response to an April riot at the Lee Correctional Institution in South Carolina, which resulted in the death of seven inmates and injuries to many others. As part of the strike, prisoners will engage in various nonviolent acts of protest, including peaceful sit-ins, hunger strikes, work strikes and boycotts.

Gettyimages 589931100

A condemned inmate stands with handcuffs on as he prepares to be released from the exercise yard back to his cell at San Quentin State Prison’s death row on August 15, 2016 in San Quentin, California.

Source Justin Sullivan/Getty

Why does it matter? Inmates are calling for fair wages, better treatment and living conditions, voting rights and increased funding for prisoner education. “Prisoners understand they are being treated as animals,” Jailhouse Lawyers Speak said in an issued statement. “Prisons in America are a war zone.” It’s not clear what percentage of America’s approximately 2.3 million inmates will participate in the strike, but organizers hope that the act of mass noncooperation will be one of the largest ever on U.S. soil and force changes in prison operations across the country.


A series of unfortunate events. The first and last days of the strike are planned to coincide with dark milestones in the history of the U.S. penitentiary system: On Aug. 21, 1971, imprisoned Black activist George Jackson was killed by guards after taking several people hostage in San Quentin State Prison, while on Sept. 9 of that same year, nearly 1,300 prisoners staged an uprising in New York state’s Attica Correctional Facility that captured the country’s attention. 

Strike that. The history of getting real results from work stoppages and hunger strikes by prisoners is spotty at best. The Attica prison rebellion, which began with a work stoppage and led to a riot resulting in more than 40 deaths, indirectly led to the formation of prison unions and more representation for prisoners. But, more recently, a 2010 strike across state prisons in Georgia protesting unpaid labor didn’t get prisoners a wage. And a 2016 strike, the largest in U.S. history, resulted in little, if any, reform, and has been partially blamed on a lack of press coverage.

Gettyimages 589931200

Condemned inmates stand in an exercise yard at San Quentin State Prison’s death row on August 15, 2016 in San Quentin, California.

Source Justin Sullivan/Getty

So, what are the chances? Despite the scale of the protest, it remains unclear whether this year’s strike will be able to effect meaningful change. Some experts believe it could work if it’s widespread and sustained. “By going on a national strike,” one law professor says, “you pull back the curtain, and it can force legislators to act.” Still, other researchers say prisoners’ demands are rarely met, and getting outsiders to understand the plight of the incarcerated remains a tall order. 

By the numbers. The United States has the world’s largest incarcerated population at 2.3 million, and more than 800,000 prisoners are put to work daily. According to The Marshall Project, the average wage in state prisons is 20 cents per hour (in Louisiana it’s 4 cents per hour). Meanwhile, in California, the per capita cost to the government of one inmate is more than $80,000, according the state’s Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. 

The other strikers. A number of immigration facilities in the U.S. saw detainee strikes in response to the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” program. In July, women detained in south Texas went on a hunger strike after being separated from their children. Detainees in Tacoma, Washington, also reportedly refused food in solidarity. And a group of detained fathers recently reunited with their sons in Texas went on a hunger strike earlier this month for their release. 


America’s Prisoners Are Striking for Their Lives, by Issac Bailey in Splinter

“Without ‘immediate improvements,’ some prisoners won’t even live to benefit from any fruit that comes of the strike.”

My Four Months as a Private Prison Guard, by Shane Bauer in Mother Jones

“In the entire prison of more than 1,500 inmates, there are no full-time psychiatrists and just one full-time social worker”


Why the August 2018 Prison Strike Is Happening

“This time around prisoners have adapted their strategy and tactics and decided that they’re going to call for a week [strike]. … The infrastructure would not survive a week without prison labor.”

Watch on Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee on YouTube:

Serving Time by Fighting Wildfires in California

“There’s a million and one ways to get injured out there and probably a thousand ways to die.”

Watch on McClatchy Washington Bureau on YouTube:


Profit margins. While inmates say they’re toiling in miserable conditions across the country — including those in California called on to fight that state’s wildfires for $1 per hour plus $2 per day — some companies are making a killing off the same system. According to the Urban Justice Center, more than half of the $80 billion spent on incarceration annually in the U.S. is used to pay thousands of vendors providing food, health care, construction and other services to the prison system, including more than 2,500 privately traded companies collecting a profit from their work.

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