Prisoners striking for fair wages, humane conditions deserve support

Prisoners striking for fair wages, humane conditions deserve support
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Nearly 2,000 prisoners fighting wildfires in California this summer are being paid less than $2 an hour — and the grueling work experience won’t even pay off after release, because state regulations preclude anyone with a criminal conviction from becoming a firefighter. Across the United States, prisoners must work for pennies, typically earning $3.45 a day. This helps to explain why so many prisoners are joining hunger strikes and work stoppages, demanding better living conditions and an end to exploitative forced labor that does nothing to prepare them for their return to society.

According to media reports, this could become the largest prison strike in U.S. history. Though prison communication restrictions make it hard to determine the scale of the strike, so far prisoners in 11 states — including California, Texas, Florida, South Carolina and Ohio — reportedly are taking part. 

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Anyone who has studied the U.S. prison system knows that prisoners have a long list of things worth striking over. Human Rights Watch has investigated horrendous conditions in U.S. prisons (as well as the criminal justice practices that drive mass incarceration). We extensively documented prison rape across the United States, contributing to the movement behind the 2003 Prison Rape Elimination Act, which seeks to protect people from sexual assault behind bars by creating compliance standards. We also exposed the inhumane and sometimes deadly use of solitary confinement, especially for teens; beatings and other force used against prisoners with mental health issues; and the continued incarceration of ill and elderly prisoners whom authorities refuse to consider for compassionate release.

Substandard health treatment is widespread; I know that from our work on deaths in ICE detention centers and discrimination against and shaming of prisoners with HIV — and because my father almost died from negligent medical care in Washington, D.C.’s Lorton Prison (which was closed and converted into luxury condos).

Economic conditions seem to be driving this strike — the exorbitant rates of prison phone calls, imposed on prisoners who were, on average, paid less in 2017 than in 2001. Working for pennies, it can take weeks of savings to buy must-have items, such as tampons or phone cards.

In 2016, tens of thousands of prisoners in Alabama went on strike against forced prison labor, which in the United States is allowed by the 13th Amendment, passed in 1865 to outlaw slavery except “as punishment for a crime.” Prisoners serving a sentence already are being punished for their crimes — prison labor should help prisoners prepare for a return to society and never be punitive. Where prisoners’ work is for the profit of private businesses, they should be paid normal wages.

In 1995, African-American prisoners rioted across the country, protesting a congressional vote that failed to reform the law that punished crack use far harder than powdered cocaine, causing the Federal Bureau of Prisons to issue its only nationwide lockdown. In 2010, Congress passed the Fair Sentencing Act to address this injustice, which also allowed at least some prisoners unfairly sentenced to leave prison early. In the long term, these actions can provoke real reform.

This time around, prisoners supporting the strike want to repeal a law Congress passed in 1996 that requires lawsuits brought by prisoners to satisfy requirements that don’t apply to others, making it extremely difficult for them to sue. They are demanding the right to vote and regain a voice in society after completing their sentences, which the United States is obligated to do under international human rights law. We’ve documented the harm caused by denying voting rights and we’re urging voters in Florida to overturn their state’s lifetime ban by supporting Amendment 4 in November.

Obviously, many prisoners fear reprisals. Many joining these efforts they are not refusing to work but refusing to buy supplies or services from their prison, making it easier to protest under the radar. Many have said that they hope this will affect the bottom line of prisons and private companies profiting from the system. This strike is intended to go through Sept. 9, and unusually strong news coverage of the strike has drawn much-needed attention to the problems in the U.S. prison system. Elected officials should heed the call for reform.

Jasmine L. Tyler is U.S. advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. Follow her on Twitter @jazzytyler.