EDITORIAL: Prison labor system exploits its inmates
Strikes against working conditions doesn’t attract attention
American history is darkly intertwined with exploitative labor. It would be naïve to blindly succumb to the popular notion that involuntary servitude ended on Dec. 6, 1965, through the ratification of the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The gross present-day reality is that slave labor persists. Involuntary servitude is just now made invisible, separate from the rest of society and unbeknownst to ordinary people, but this form of exploitation operates at a massive scale and brushes upon people’s life in subtle ways, from taxes citizens pay that’s used to prop up these oppressive systems to purchasing products produced by indentured servants. Slave labor is pernicious and pervasive.
Section 1 of the 13th Amendment concisely articulates the law of the land: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” The operative word in this sentence is “except,” because that's when the sentence shifts and introduces a stipulation for when slave labor is acceptable — when the “slave” is a criminal.
Since Sept. 9 in at least 29 prisons and as many as 50, inmates staged nationwide labor strikes, hunger strikes and other varieties of protest in 12 states against working conditions within the prison system. This strike is said to be one of the largest, if not the largest, prison strikes the U.S. has experienced. Inmates are protesting a wide range of issues from harsh parole systems and three-strike laws to overcrowding and medical neglect. However, the overarching complaint that unified workers is the exploitation of inmate labor.
Prison labor is a whopping $2 billion a year industry that employs 900,000 inmates, paying them a few pathetic cents per hour. Those who are lucky get up $2.00 an hour, and the unluckiest ones get nothing at all. Inmates involuntarily work for private companies such as Whole Foods, preparing artisan cheese and raising tilapia, McDonalds, creating cutlery, containers and uniforms and Wal-Mart, harvesting produce in the heat without sunscreen, food or water. In addition to working for private companies, prisoners cook, clean and work on maintenance and construction in their own prison. Inmates are forced into deplorable prison conditions while working for essentially nothing.
The prison strike was organized to coincide with the 45th anniversary of the Attica prison uprising, but in recent weeks, the protests have wound down. People outside the prison networks heard little about such protests, rendering it ineffective. The prison population participating in this strike made themselves vulnerable to the prison-establishment’s retaliation through isolated confinement, loss of privileges or the loss of their lives. Recent crackdowns on the striking workers include tactical team storming the yard, handcuffing people and firing tear gas canisters, and also being left out in the rain for up to six hours. The purpose of a prison is to rehabilitate and compensate for a committed crime, not to throw people into a debased system of abuse.
For the inmates, relaying their conditions and plight beyond the walls of the prison comes with barriers. Stories about the prison strikes failed to obtain adequate attention from mainstream media outlets, and other news outlets that fortunately covered the events had to work with the bits of information they were able to acquire. However, the effort of inmates to convey their experience under daily misconduct within the prison system should not be in vain.
Prisons — which are traditionally public institutions — should not be privatized to have a profit-motivated bottom line. The current system strips people of dignity, and makes money off of it. Immediate reform of this deeply flawed system is necessary to preserve the integrity of this country and for application of justice.
The Daily Targum's editorials represent the views of the majority of the 148th editorial board. Columns, cartoons and letters do not necessarily reflect the views of the Targum Publishing Company or its staff.