Prisoners Are Striking In 17 States. Here's Why Their 10 Demands Matter.

This could be the largest prison strike in U.S. history.

Prisoners in 17 states have begun various forms of strikes this week, kicking off what may end up being the largest prison strike in U.S. history.  

While much of the news has focused on the prisoners' contempt for low-wage labor positions that don't translate to jobs in the real world, the prisoners have actually released a more complete list of 10 demands. Included in those demands are recognition of a prisoners' humanity, improvement of conditions inside prisons, legislative changes, the end of biased sentencing and charging of Black and Brown Americans, and a demand to better protect prisoners on the inside from violence.


"The conditions are so desperate," Brianna Peril, the co-founder of the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee (IWOC), told A Plus. "People are literally being tortured and killed. It's reprehensible, it's just horrendous."

The headline issue of the strike so far has been the extremely low wages prisoners are given for their labor, and comparisons of it to slavery. Many incarcerated men and women work while behind bars and make less than one dollar an hour. But the catch, for American citizens on the outside, is that the prisoners often don't get job experience that will help them re-integrate into society once they leave prison. Only 55 percent of inmates reported any earnings in the first year after being released from prison, according to the Brookings Institution. 

In their list of demands, the striking prisoners also ask that pell grants and rehabilitation services be offered across the country. Peril, who spent time in prison for petty crimes, such as stealing checks from her boss, emphasized that the prison system's biggest needs involve services that will help restore the lives of those who go to jail. 

"It's an attempt to restore humanity," Peril said. "They've been dehumanized, and that's part of the problem that keeps them from being able to act together and value themselves."

When Peril was behind bars, she felt no hope and said she had "no concept" that life could get better. Before being imprisoned, her boss had actually dropped the charges against her for stealing checks, but the state picked them back up and successfully prosecuted her. When she was released, her old boss re-hired her and helped her get her life together. That experience, she said, was one of the first times she realized someone cared about her and her life could have value. Now, she's trying to help bring that same feeling to people who are currently serving time in prison.

ANGOLA PRISON, LOUISIANA - OCTOBER 14, 2013: A visitors comment box at Angola Prison. The Louisiana State Penitentiary, also known as Angola, and nicknamed the 'Alcatraz of the South' and 'The Farm' is a maximum-security prison farm in Louisiana operated by the Louisiana Department of Public Safety & Corrections. It is named Angola after the former plantation that occupied this territory, which was named for the African country that was the origin of many enslaved Africans brought to Louisiana in slavery times. This is the largest maximum-security prison in the United States[with 6,300 prisoners and 1,800 staff, including corrections officers, janitors, maintenance, and wardens. It is located on an 18,000-acre (7,300 ha) property that was previously known as the Angola Plantations and bordered on three sides by the Mississippi River. (Photo by Giles Clarke/Getty Images) Getty Images / Giles Clarke / Contributor / Collection: Getty Images News

"There need to be policies that center on the human rights and the humanity of people that are in prisons," Jared Ware, a freelance journalist who has been covering these movements for two years, told A Plus. "Part of that is repealing the prison litigation reform act … which made it so people couldn't file lawsuits against prisons. They had to go through an internal grievance system run by prisons, and prisons don't like saying they are violating human rights."

Most of the current strikes are happening at state level prisons, though the number of striking prisoners remains unclear. Ware and Peril each explained similar circumstances that prevent the striking organizers from getting accurate numbers early on. Many prisons respond to strikes by going on "lockdown," meaning communications to and from the prison are limited. Family visits are stopped and phone calls are prohibited. In a few weeks or months, Peril said, it's likely that organizers on the inside will finally be able to get letters out and provide updates on what's happening inside the prison. While the strikers have been organizing for years, and their demands are similar to the ones that have been made for decades, organizers have repeatedly pointed to the violence that left seven dead at Lee Correctional Facility in South Carolina as the impetus for this strike.

In a rare disclosure, prison officials in both North Carolina and Virginia have acknowledged strikes are happening inside. Ware said that some strikers are participating by simply not making phone calls or buying commissary, which drives profits at many prisons, in an effort to stop the "profiteers" in the prison system from making money off of them. 

The Bureau of Prisons' Office of Public Affairs responded to a request for comment saying it had no reports of strikes in any of its federal prisons and declined a request for an interview on behalf of Unicor, the federal corrections program that made $453.8 million dollars in sales last year. The American Correctional Association, the largest and oldest private correctional association in the country, did not respond to a request for an interview. 

Here are the 10 demands laid out by the organizers of the strike:

1. Immediate improvements to the conditions of prisons and prison policies that recognize the humanity of imprisoned men and women.

2. An immediate end to prison slavery. All persons imprisoned in any place of detention under United States jurisdiction must be paid the prevailing wage in their state or territory for their labor.

3. The Prison Litigation Reform Act must be rescinded, allowing imprisoned humans a proper channel to address grievances and violations of their rights.

4. The Truth in Sentencing Act and the Sentencing Reform Act must be rescinded so that imprisoned humans have a possibility of rehabilitation and parole. No human shall be sentenced to Death by Incarceration or serve any sentence without the possibility of parole.

5. An immediate end to the racial overcharging, over-sentencing, and parole denials of Black and Brown humans. Black humans shall no longer be denied parole because the victim of the crime was White, which is a particular problem in southern states.

6. An immediate end to racist gang enhancement laws targeting Black and Brown humans.

7. No imprisoned human shall be denied access to rehabilitation programs at their place of detention because of their label as a violent offender.

8. State prisons must be funded specifically to offer more rehabilitation services.

9. Pell grants must be reinstated in all US states and territories.

10. The voting rights of all confined citizens serving prison sentences, pretrial detainees, and so-called "ex-felons" must be counted. Representation is demanded. All voices count!

MIDTOWN MANHATTAN, NEW YORK, NY, UNITED STATES - 2016/09/09: Demonstrators demanding the closure of Attica Correctional Facility in New York State hold signs while participating in a rally on Third Avenue in Manhattan. Rally participants demand, in addition to the permanent closure of the historic Attica Correctional Facility, a broad range of decarceration efforts and justice system reforms across the United States. (Photo by Albin Lohr-Jones/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images) Getty Images News / Pacific Press / Contributor / Collection: LightRocket

A Plus was unable to get in contact with an official or representative from a state or federal prison, or any of the workers' companies profiting off of prison labor, to speak on the record about the strikes. Pressed about how they would defend the cheap labor or current conditions of prisons, Peril said she had never heard any of the corporations involved — such as McDonald's, Whole Foods and Walmart, according to Axios — offer any justification. 

Along with the demands, Peril's hope is that the strike successfully gets the word out to Americans about what's happening inside prisons. She described a populace that is unaware of the conditions most prisoners are living in, the torture and violence happening in jail, the inedible food they are often served, and the lack of medical care and services provided to help rehabilitate them. Her hope is that the strikes can, at the least, spread awareness and maybe bring reform to a system that forces so many prisoners into low-wage labor.

"People in the general public who support this will say at least they're not bored sitting in their cell," Peril said. "I guess they don't have any concept of education or rehabilitation."

Getty Images / Giles Clarke / Contributor / Collection: Getty Images News


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