Prisoners across the United States (US) are urging the government to end slave labor and improve penal conditions in a prison strike which could be the largest in American history. The 20-day strike began on August 21st and is set to end on September 9th, marking the anniversary of the Attica Prison Riots in 1971. Led by advocate groups including Jailhouse Lawyers Speak and Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee (IWOC), the protest comes after seven prisoners were killed in a South Carolina state prison in April. While it is difficult to determine the exact number of those striking, Time reports that the nation-wide protest covers at least 17 states thus far. Although prisoners cannot follow the conventional path of protests due to their isolation from society, they can rally within through labor strikes, hunger strikes and sit-ins. Leading advocate Amani Sawari states “The main leverage that an inmate has is their own body… Prisons cannot run without prisoners’ work”. The strike is expected to disrupt the functioning of prisons while also educating the public on the exploitation experienced by those behind bars.
The National Prisoners Strike brings to light major issues in the US’s prison system. This includes its mass incarceration, which aggravates poor prison conditions, under-staffing and underpaid labor which can leave those behind bars subjects to exploitation and abuse. Advocates claim this protest is about human rights breaches which could be avoided through more effective policies. As Jailhouse Lawyer Speakers argue, “[p]risons in America are a warzone. Every day prisoners are harmed due to conditions of confinement [sic].” The United States has a long history with prisoner protests, with the largest recorded occurring in 2016. Protesting similar issues to the current strike, approximately 57,000 prisoners participated in the process (or were locked down preventing them), as reported by IWOC. Questions now arise of whether the Trump administration will respond to this strike and reform major policies which exploit those incarcerated.
Prisoners are commonly denied human rights. One reason for this is the 13th Amendment in the US Constitution, which abolished slavery in 1865, “except as a punishment for crime.” Due to this constitutional exception, it is legal for prisoners to complete labor for zero to little pay. For example, the Prison Policy Initiative outlines that it is not uncommon for prisoners to be paid under $1 (USD) an hour, including in Louisiana where the maximum hourly pay is $0.40. The use of prisoners for forced labor has been criticized locally and globally, including by the United Nations (UN). The UN argues that forced labor breaches various articles under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, including Article 23 which outlines the right to equal pay for equal work. A form of modern-day slavery, forced labor exploits prisoners and leaves them with little financial security and less hope of rehabilitation. However, forced labor is not the only issue prisoners face. Inmates commonly experience violence and abuse, which could be fueled by their rights abuses and under-staffing. For example, the Bureau of Justice Statistics reported that between 2001 and 2014, 4,716 inmates died from unnatural causes, including from homicide and suicide.
The breaches against the human rights of prisoners could be avoided if certain policies were reformed by the US government. This includes legislation related to the ongoing War on Drugs, particularly in relation to draconian sentencing. It can be argued that these policies exacerbate the mass incarceration, which in turn swamps American prisons, leaving those incarcerated vulnerable. Currently, there are 2.3 million people incarcerated in the United States. The country has the highest incarceration rate in the world, which the Prison Policy Initiative reports are an arrest rate of 698 per 100,000 people. One reason for these high rates is the War on Drugs as initially implemented by president Nixon in 1971. By harshly criminalizing drug usage and possession, incarceration rates skyrocketed for non-violent crimes. Whilst very complex, the Nixon policy has also created racial disparities in the incarceration system. For example, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People reports that African Americans are imprisoned five times more than white people. Additionally, they state that in 2015 African Americans and Hispanics made up 56 percent of those incarcerated, despite comprising only 32 percent of the US population.
As mentioned above, America’s mass incarceration is draconian in its sentencing: restrictive and with harsh punishments. Human Rights Watch argues that mandatory minimum sentencing and excessive sentences place unnecessary pressure on US prisons, particularly for non-violent crimes. Trump has also been criticized for his approach to draconian sentencing, with the Brennan Centre for Justice reporting that mandatory minimums could increase under his leadership. Expanding on this issue, other prison reforms under Trump have the potential to worsen prison conditions. For example, the Brennan Centre for Justice reported that Trump repealed Obama-era prison policies dedicated to reducing mass incarceration. One report by Ames Grawert suggests Trump has misled Americans in “making America safe again”, such as by falsely connecting America’s drug problem with immigration, particularly from Mexico.
America’s prison system needs to change and through correct prison reforms, the human rights of prisoners could be protected. The legalization of slave labor, coupled with mass incarceration, creates an environment for prisoners to be exploited. While those behind bars should be punished for committing crimes, rehabilitation, rather than dehumanization, should be America’s focus. Firstly, the Prison Policy Initiative reports that one in five people are incarcerated for drug offenses. If mandatory minimums were decreased on the less serious of these offences, a large burden could be taken off prisons. While mandatory minimums can also be effective in ensuring all are equally punished for a crime, such sentences can fail to address the root causes of crimes, such as poverty.
Almost 50 years after Nixon initiated the War on Drugs, it is time to take a different approach to the issue. This includes no longer targeting vulnerable groups, including the poor, immigrants and women, for a drug problem which affects the whole of the United States. One possibility could be to provide more funding to education and the prevention of drug use, rather than funding its criminalization. Additionally, for those who must be punished for drug offences, rehabilitation and ensuring financial security for prisoners in the future should be the key focus for prisons. Without money to survive and to provide for a family, individuals can be structurally coerced to commit or re-commit petty crimes. As a result, it is crucial that prisoners be paid, at least minimum wage, for the labor they do behind bars. Slave labor is a constitutional flaw which dehumanizes the individual and leaves them with less hope of rehabilitation on leaving prison. While officials argue that prisons can’t afford to pay prisoner’s minimum wage, it may be time to re-direct funding to their labor and education. This would ensure a large percentage of inmates wouldn’t reconvict which would help end the cycle of crime.
America’s prison issue is complex, as accentuated by the ongoing National Prisoners Strike. The government is also posed with the challenge of protecting the needs of society while protecting the rights and needs of prisoners. There may be no concrete solution to solving its prison issues and protecting the rights of prisoners. However, shifting policies towards crime prevention, rehabilitation and the minimization of mass incarceration would be a positive start. It would also ensure prisoners are treated and respected as humans.
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