Prison inmates across the United States began a nationwide strike on Tuesday, Aug. 21, demanding improvements to living conditions, greater access to rehabilitation, sentencing reform and the abolition of penal labor, which strike organizers say amounts to modern-day slavery.
Around noon on the same day, approximately 35 people gathered in downtown Portland’s Chapman Square to rally with representatives of Abolish ICE PDX in solidarity with the strike. “Our intent is to amplify the voices of those who are currently incarcerated in the intolerable, dehumanizing conditions of modern day slavery,” organizers stated on the event’s Facebook page.
Later, a group of five dancers representing the Multnomah indigenous peoples performed in the square before ralliers returned to chanting, “Prisoners are people too.”
Around 4:30 p.m., the group moved to the eastern end of the square across the street from the Multnomah County Justice Center to join a noise demonstration organized by local activist group Portland Assembly. Organizers said the purpose of the demonstration was to show solidarity with the people inside the center. Protesters continued chanting as they blasted music until the crowd dispersed around 5:30 p.m.
“I’m here today [because] I have been to jail and seen the living conditions in there,” said an attendee who identified themselves as Jonathan. “I can only imagine how much worse it must be for those in actual prison.”
Jailhouse Lawyers Speak—the collective of incarcerated people spearheading the strike—said in a press release the strike was organized in response to the April 2018 riot at Lee Correctional Institution, a maximum-security prison in Bishopville, S.C. The riot lasted eight hours and resulted in at least seven inmate deaths and 17 injuries.
“Seven comrades lost their lives during a senseless uprising that could have been avoided had the prison not been so overcrowded from the greed wrought by mass incarceration, and a lack of respect for human life that is embedded in our nation’s penal ideology,” organizers wrote.
NATIONAL PRISON STRIKE AUGUST 21-SEPTEMBER 9TH, 2018 pic.twitter.com/Mzbb4e96yp
— Jailhouse Lawyers Speak #PrisonRebellion (@JailLawSpeak) April 24, 2018
The demonstrations, which organizers say will include work strikes, sit-ins, commissary boycotts and hunger strikes, will last nearly three weeks, from Aug. 21 to Sept. 9. These dates are historically significant—the former marks the anniversary of the death of Black activist and author George Jackson, who was shot and killed in San Quentin Prison in 1971 after allegedly taking three correctional officers and two inmates hostage in an escape attempt. The strike’s end date commemorates the anniversary of the 1971 Attica Prison uprising in upstate New York.
While it is unclear how many of the approximately 2.1 million incarcerated people in the U.S. will participate in the strike, protest action has been confirmed in California’s Folsom State Prison and a detention center in Tacoma, Wash., as well as a jail in Halifax, Nova Scotia, The Guardian reported.
On April 24, JLS released a list of 10 national demands guiding the strike. In addition to demands related to prison living conditions, access to education and rehabilitation programs, laws and policies governing the sentencing and parole processes, and inmates’ legal rights, including the right to vote and to file lawsuits, organizers are calling for the abolition of penal labor, which they refer to as “prison slavery.”
“All persons imprisoned in any place of detention under United States jurisdiction must be paid the prevailing wage in their state or territory for their labor,” the statement reads.
Prison labor issues recently received national attention when the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation announced the state’s use of prison labor in fighting wildfires on Twitter. These inmate firefighters were paid $1 per hour plus $2 per day, Vox reported.
According to a 2017 report by the Prison Policy Initiative, the average minimum daily wage for incarcerated workers working regular prison jobs in the U.S. is 86 cents, down from 93 cents in 2001. In Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia and Texas, most prison jobs are unpaid. Inmates assigned to work for state-owned businesses earn an average of 33 cents to $1.41 per hour, about twice as much as people who work at the institutions in which they are incarcerated. However, these types of jobs are in the minority.
Prison labor was a major topic of discussion at a panel organized by local group Asians4BlackLives Portland on the evening of the first day of the strike. The event, held at the office of the Multnomah County chapter of Unite Oregon, featured activist, educator and Portland State alumna Walidah Imarisha and Jarell Lambert of Liberation Literacy, a social justice reading group that meets at Portland’s Columbia River Correctional Facility in addition to representatives from local branches of the All-African People’s Revolutionary Party, Black Lives Matter and Critical Resistance.
“Prisons are functioning as a way to basically get essentially slave labor,” said the AAPRP representative who identified themselves only as Claudia. “Cheap labor to offset what should really be jobs that are paid [and] that are a way for people to meet their basic needs.”
“Prisons are functioning as a way to basically get essentially slave labor” – AAPRP representative Claudia.
Imarisha also made reference to slavery in her discussion of the issue, referencing the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which in 1865 abolished slavery and involuntary servitude, except as punishment for a crime. “Connecting prisons to slavery is absolutely important,” she said. “Massive amounts of money are being made off of prisons, but…it’s not quite enough money being made to justify the prison apparatus, so it cannot be the only reason. It actually can’t be the main reason. And the main reason we have this massive prison system is as a mechanism of social control.”
“I believe in the abolition of prisons,” Imarisha continued. “I believe that we will never have true justice as long as a single prison exists in this country, in this world. And in the same framework of abolition democracy, we can’t just say we want to abolish this without saying what does real justice look like and how do we begin to grow and build that? You don’t cut away weeds to just have an empty lot, you cut away weeds so that then you can have a garden. So what are we wanting to plant in the space that we are fighting so hard, [that] people are giving their lives to create? How are we going to grow that future that we want to see in that space?”