US & Canada

Inmate strikers enter the fray for US prison reform

An inmate at San Quentin prison in California Image copyright Getty Images

The US is currently in the midst of the largest prisoner strike in its history. Prison reform in the US has typically been in the hands of politicians and activists - but now the actual inmates want their say.

On 9 September, the 45th anniversary of a bloody 1971 prison uprising in Attica, New York, inmates at prisons throughout the US staged a coordinated strike in an estimated 11 states.

The epicentre of the protest movement is the troubled William C Holman Correctional Facility in Alabama and a group of inmates and allies there called the Free Alabama Movement. Fam partnered with the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee to spread the word to various prisons through direct mailings and prisoner news publications.

Inmates have even found ways to communicate about the strike using social media accounts, which can be maintained by friends and family on the outside.

"That's very difficult to organise, and this is, even taking the most conservative version of the facts, the largest prisoner strike in recent memory," says David Fathi, director of the ACLU National Prison Project.

The goals were manifold, but among them is an end to cheap prison labour. In the US, prison inmates do all sorts of work, from fighting fires, to sewing undergarments, to farming the land and cleaning up road kill on the highways. For these kinds of duties they can be paid as little as 15 cents an hour.

While private companies do contract with prisons for cheap labour, Alex Friedmann, the managing editor of Prison Legal News, says the vast majority of the work is to help run and maintain the prison facilities themselves.

"Prisons really work off the back of prisoners," he says, noting that inmates do not receive minimum wage, worker's compensation or overtime and cannot unionise. Most of their money ends up spent at the prison's commissary or to use the phones.

"They cannot run these facilities without us," reads one piece of organising literature. "We hope to end prison slavery by making it impossible, by refusing to be slaves any longer."

The strike has an interesting end goal, according to the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee - by raising prison wages, costs for the institutions will go up and the profitability of contracting out prison labour will go down, eliminating any profit-making incentives for incarceration.

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Media captionWitness: Attica Prison Riots

Prison reform has been a huge topic of conversation in the US for some time. The federal government just announced that it will end its use of private, for-profit prisons. Several state governments have elected to either scale back or at least study their use of solitary confinement. The Federal Communications Commission began capping the rates that prisoners have to pay to call the outside world - rates that previously could be as high as $1 a minute.

But with the advent of this strike, it appears that inmates are hoping to capitalise on the groundswell of support for reform and aren't willing to wait until they're free to do so. On the appointed day of the strike, reports of protesting inmates trickled out from around the country.

In a facility in Florida, 400 inmates reportedly damaged their dorms, though no one was injured. At the Holman facility in Alabama, 45 inmates stayed in their cells rather than report to work. In a Michigan prison, hundreds of inmates initially refused to work and staged a march, which later turned into the destruction of some of the dorms, according to officials.

As the weeks have rolled on, other reports have come in of inmates on hunger strikes.

Estimates of how many prisons were affected vary - advocates say 20 prisons had a total of 20,000 inmates participating at one time.

Covering the actions is inherently difficult, however, given that they occur behind locked doors, away from public view, and the strikers themselves have limited (or no) access to phones and the internet. On top of that, officials may have an incentive to downplay what is happening at their facilities. According to the Marshall Project, a non-profit news website concerned with criminal justice reform in the US, despite reports of striking inmates in facilities in Texas and South Carolina, prison authorities have denied any action took place.

Some inmates have gotten news out of their facilities using contraband mobile phones, but these reports are, again, difficult to confirm.

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Media captionPrisoners explain why they volunteered to be inmate firefighters

Nevertheless, there has been one notable and confirmable development at Holman, which has long struggled with violence, overcrowding, understaffing and rioting. Before the strike began, an inmate fatally stabbed a guard in the head with a makeshift knife. The prison is on its third warden in nine months - the previous one retired after being stabbed.

On 24 September, nine correctional officers did not arrive for their shift. Advocates say that this was in solidarity with the inmates, and in the past Holman guards have made complaints similar to those of the inmates - that Holman is incredibly unsafe due to understaffing and lack of resources. A Holman inmate called Kinetik Justice - who has been communicating via Twitter - says further actions by the guards is coming.

"I think this is a wake up call," says Fathi. "This is a very costly action for prisoners - they can be disciplined ... They can be put in solitary confinement, they can lose good time, thus prolonging their time in prison.

"That says to me they are at the limits of their tolerance."

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