National Prison Strike Turns Spotlight Toward Industry's Problems

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Thanks to a mass influx of inmates, the prison industry is humming like General Motors in the 1960s, except the labor is way cheaper. Exploited is the word, according to prisoners and their advocates. So on Sept. 9, prison inmates are planning what's said to be an unprecedented national work strike, "a call to action against slavery in America."

It's a story you may not hear much about, but one worth paying attention to. Prison demonstrations have been growing across the country in reaction to overcrowding, poor living conditions and unpaid labor at the hand of prison systems and the corporations that profit from them.

In April, inmates at seven Texas prisons went on a work strike to protest living and working conditions.

Prisoners in Alabama, Michigan, California and Wisconsin this year have organized work stoppages and hunger strikes. We're now looking at the first national strike, maybe the largest coordinated act of resistance in U.S. prison history. The date, Sept. 9, is the anniversary of the nightmarish Attica prison rebellion in 1971. More than 1,000 inmates took over Attica in western New York, demanding better conditions. Gov. Nelson Rockefeller ordered state police to storm the place, and they shot and killed 29 inmates and 10 hostages.

Prison conditions overall improved after the 1970s, largely due to lawsuits and court orders, says Marc Mauer of The Sentencing Project, a non-profit advocating for criminal justice reform. But with the 1980s crack epidemic came the start of mass incarceration – tough-on-crime laws that locked up many more low-level offenders, a disproportionate number of them black, for longer periods of time.

The number of people in U.S. prisons and jails is five times what it was in the '70s. Ohio's prison system was built for 38,000 inmates, but it houses more than 50,000 and is expected to grow more. We're among the worst states for over-incarceration in a country that leads the world in incarcerating its citizens.

There's enormous profit potential in captivity. Corporations now own a prison in Ohio (the first state to sell a prison), and operate prisons throughout the land. For-profit companies have a piece of the action in health care and food services. Prisoners work on farms and in factories, and staff call centers for corporations. They often earn nothing or up to a few dollars a day. Starbucks, Boeing and McDonalds all have profited off prison labor. Private prison companies have spent millions lobbying for stricter laws to keep the inmates flowing, and they have occupancy quotas in their contracts. Ohio guarantees payment to Corrections Corporation of America, which owns Ohio's Lake Erie Correctional Institute, for 90 percent occupancy.

The U.S. Department of Justice in August underscored the failings of corporatization with a stunning announcement that it would end the use of private prisons. The DOJ concluded private prisons are too dangerous, their programs and services are subpar, and they don't save much money. But that's only a piece of the federal prison system. Meanwhile, Ohio insists corporatizing prisons is a money-saver. Through legislation passed last year, the state plans to sell a second state prison, the North Central Correctional Institution in Marion. This is after the 2011 sale of Lake Erie Correctional in Conneaut prompted a state inspection committee and the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio to expose terrible conditions there -- increased violence, rampant drug use, unsanitary food and general dysfunction. There was no running water in certain areas, forcing inmates to shit in bags. The ACLU made a film about it, Prisons for Profit, which premiered at the Cleveland International Film Festival last year.

"Privatization, exploitation of labor, this all branches off the same rotten tree, which is our mass incarceration system," Mike Brickner of the Ohio ACLU says. "Because of that, all these problems come cascading down."

North Central Correctional Institution is already privately operated by Management and Training Corp. JoEllen Smith, spokeswoman for the Ohio prison system, says both privately operated facilities "perform in a manner that is safe and secure, as demonstrated by their contractually required accreditation status by the American Correctional Association and compliance with Ohio internal management audit standards."

Smith did not comment on the prospect of a Sept. 9 prison strike, nor would she answer questions about contracting out prison labor. But at least one person who helps organize prisoners from the outside said Ohio is among states she expects to have strong participation. Azzura Crispino handles media for the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee, a new labor organization that has had a hand in strikes in various states. The labor group two years ago spun off from Industrial Workers of the World, a union formed in 1905 and headquartered in Chicago, after prison organizers and outside supporters sought help addressing working and living conditions.

Crispino said more than 800 prisoners affiliate with the group, and there are more supporters who don't want to be known as members for fear of punishment.

"The prisoners who are getting paid a wage at all for their labor is rare," she says. "The system is doing exactly what it's designed to do: Extract as much money off the backs of prisoners as possible."

A few months ago, incarcerated organizers put out the call to action: "On Sept. 9 of 2016, we will begin an action to shut down prisons all across the country. We will not only demand the end to prison slavery, we will end it ourselves by ceasing to be slaves."

It would be nice to know how it plays out, but those involved say prisons most certainly will black out communications to whatever extent possible. Ohio had a prison watchdog – a maverick named Joanna Saul, who exposed troubles at Lake Erie Correctional and who called out the state's food-service vendor for serving up maggots. It's hard to argue against the need for a watchdog. But Saul apparently ruffled too many feathers in a Republican legislature gaga over corporatizing public services. They forced her out in June.

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