Last month, on the 45th anniversary of the infamous Attica Prison uprising, tens of thousands of US inmates launched a nationwide protest that continues today, according to advocates who helped organize the effort.
The inmates’ grievances are as varied as the states they came from: Pennies for labor in South Carolina, racial discrimination in California, excessive force in Michigan. However, they share a general goal, which is to :End legalized slavery inside American correctional facilities.
Jails and prisons don’t have to be luxurious — or comfortable, for that matter — but the US Supreme Court has said they’re not supposed to be dangerous or dehumanizing. Yet the 13th Amendment of the US Constitution, while banning slavery, allows prisoners to work for little to no pay , in what inmate activists say crosses the limits of human decency, amounting to modern-day slavery.
“I used to think, ‘Nah, that ain’t America, that’s China and Cuba,’ ” South Carolina inmate Harold Sasa told CNN from a contraband phone. “It’s a system that’s neither benefiting us nor the citizens outside.”
Even the American Correctional Association, the country’s largest trade organization for prisons and jails, this year passed a resolution urging the repeal of the amendment’s “exclusion clause,” which allows for such labor. It has also called on prison work programs to “aspire” to offer wages based on inmate productivity. But many corrections officials say there’s nothing punitive about withholding wages from inmates. Often, the funds are used to offset operating costs or pay off inmates’ court-ordered restitution while providing them with job training.
Since September 9, the Incarcerated Workers’ Organizing Committee, a prisoner rights advocacy group, estimates as many as 50,000 inmates have taken part in coordinated strikes planned through social media on cell phones and snail mail across nearly two-dozen states. That number is impossible to independently verify. Some individual inmates are still protesting, IWOC said.
Officials in Texas and South Carolina denied to CNN that any protests took place. But criminal justice advocates said the scale makes it the largest and most significant inmate strike in American history.
“The fact that this was happening simultaneously in a number of states suggests a degree of planning and sophistication and community support that we haven’t seen in recent years,” said David Fathi, director of the ACLU National Prison Project .
So many inmates risking discipline, solitary confinement or an extended sentence to protest their conditions speaks to the demand for change inside corrections facilities, he said.