Prison Strike 2018
Originally read live for The Paper Machete in Chicago on August 25, 2018.

Have we got any prison fans in the audience? Any jail-heads, or klink-freaks, or slammer-jammers? Pokey Hokeys? Well, if so, you know this has not been your week, even though, overall, it has been your century. 

The United States has 2.3 million incarcerated people—that’s the largest prison population in the world, baby. So yeah, numbers-wise, we’re pretty good at prison. We may be 28th in education, but we’re number 1 in incarceration! (Also, we have a hard time spelling "incarceration!")

Alas, we might see the some consequence for our world-record-breaking prison population, as this week kicked off a strike of incarcerated men and women that could become the largest prison strike in American history. The strike is taking place across 19 days and 17 states—as far south as Florida, and as far north as Nova Scotia Canada. And I know you’re thinking, “Wow—Canada has prisons? I didn’t know anyone got in trouble there.”

You’re probably also thinking, “How did this happen? How did inmates, people locked up inside prison, with no access to social media, manage to organize a multi-state protest?” 

As with all good things, it took hard work, some moxie, and a handful of anarchists. 

The strike is in response to a riot from April at the Lee Correctional Institution in South Carolina, during which 7 inmates were killed because correctional officers deliberately waited to deescalate the overcrowded melee. Cut to now, the strike happening, organized by some activist groups who have been low key recruiting and organizing imprisoned men and women for several years.

One of which is the Industrial Workers of the World, an anarchist, socialist labor union started in Chicago. (Yeah, we don’t put ketchup on our union dues!!) The members of the IWW, known as Wobblies, because why the fuck not, worked to communicate with prisoners through mail, secret jail yard conversations, covert advertising in magazines, and helium balloons with writing on them in the sky. That is dedication to getting a message out! I’ve given up on work emails if I don’t know how to spell something.

But credit where credit is due: The protest was invented and managed completely from within prison walls. The methods of protest include not reporting to assigned jobs, boycotting spending commissary, holding sit-ins, and refusing to eat. And this is pretty brave considering that prisoners, unlike civilian workers, have no legal right to organize or strike, and doing so could lead to solitary confinement.

And solitary confinement is no walk in the park. Quite literally the opposite. It’s inhumane and shockingly common, as around 80,000 prisoners are in solitary confinement right now. Solitary can destroy social skills and coping mechanisms, meaning the incarcerated fail to get and keep jobs, or maintain relationships after release. It’s kind of college did you ever meet someone who had been homeschooled their whole life? And you’re like, “Why are they like that?” It’s like that times a hundred.

The protesters’ primary rallying cry is that prison labor is just modern slavery. It’s 2018, and slavery is legal. I know that sounds like the opening sentence of a hideous dystopian YA Lit novel, but it’s true, at least according to the Constitution. The 13th Amendment, passed in 1865, abolished slavery and involuntary servitude, except when as punishment for a crime. That’s right: Slavery has it’s own loophole written into the Constitution.

So, slavery is a crime, right? If you knew someone was keeping slaves, you’d surely be like, “Well, that’s fucked up.” Because enslaving humans is, like, one of the worst crimes. But, ironically, one could commit a crime like possession of crack, or loitering, or being black at the wrong place and time, and their PUNISHMENT is slave labor—their PUNISHMENT is a CRIME, and one maybe a thousand times worse than the actual crime they’ve been convicted of.

I know that 21st century slavery isn’t funny (and this is supposed to be at least kind of funny). So here’s an unrelated joke before I continue: Why do they call it an HOUR GLASS FIGURE instead of a WAIST OF TIME???

Alright. Well, back to slavery.

Prison slave labor will be hard to topple because it’s a billion dollar industry, saving various corporations millions of dollars each year. In 2013, a prison strike in Alabama addressed the injustice of working for free and an inmate told reporters, “That’s the only reason we’re here; they’re incarcerating people for the free labor.”

Here’s just a few things made with underpaid prison labor: McDonald’s uniforms, furniture, and lots of processed meat. Also, many prisoners are used for farming like squash, okra, and cotton—could it be more on the nose?

Prison labor is also responsible for Starbucks’ packaging. Yeah, who’da thought that the coffee chain famous for calling the police on black people for sitting quietly has no problem using prison labor to make their holiday cups?

Inmates in California were paid $1 an hour earlier this month to fight the biggest wildfire in the country. Paid a $1 an hour to save lives.

What’s maybe most insane is prison labor builds law enforcement equipment—the tools with which cops perform arrests. Who’s idea was this trope of ironic punishment? That’s like going through a rough breakup, and then the only job you can get is taking Instagram photos of your ex with their new boyfriend.

The strike is centered around ten specific policy demands, which I encourage you to look up in full.

One is the immediate end of slave labor; they demand minimum wage equal to the state’s civilian standard. Most inmates earn less than a dollar an hour, if they’re paid at all.

Another is that pell grants must be reinstated, and another is that all persons of voting age, including those in prison or on parole, deserve the right to vote.

Also, that state prisons must be specifically funded to offer more rehabilitation services.

Prison, many believe, should serve two purposes: to rehabilitate offenders, so that they can be reintegrated into society in a healthy and productive way; and to serve as an exciting setting in blockbuster Nicolas Cage movies like Face/Off, Con Air, and The Rock. That’s it!

Prison is NOT meant to disappear people, to sweep breathing, feeling humans under the proverbial rug, many falsely or unfairly convicted, so that politicians can continue drum up crime-based voter fear and mega companies can save a buck. 

To quote a former warden, who weighed in on the strike, “Inmates are there as punishment, not for punishment.”

But word is spreading, and the strike has weeks to go. As of Friday, at least 200 ICE detainees had learned of and joined the protest, refusing to eat, despite threats of retaliation. And civilian protestors are showing up from around the country. Last night in Brooklyn, crowds gathered outside a prison to make as much noise as possible, like some badass activist version of John Cusack at the end of Say Anything, to show solidarity with those inside the prison walls. Prisoners flashed their cell lights on and off to show they’d heard the noise demonstration. 

And even if you can’t stand outside a prison with a drum, or a horn, or a boombox, you should still make as much noise as possible.