The official press release from the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee, leaders of the most recent national prison strike, calls for an end to “prison slavery” and the rectification of various injustices. The repealing of harsh sentencing laws, restoration of voting rights and access to rehabilitation services are among their demands. Although the scope of the strike is unknown, due to a lack of transparency from prisons, it has garnered significant media attention, shining light on issues which most of us ignore.
“Prison slavery” refers to the paltry compensation inmates receive for their labor. In both private and public penitentiaries, prisoners usually work for under a dollar an hour, often producing goods for corporations like Starbucks or McDonald’s. Inmates also serve the public sector while receiving similar wages; wildfires currently raging in California are being beaten back by prisoners. Besides clear ethical issues, the insufficient pay leaves newly released prisoners with little to no savings to show for years of work. This instantly thrusts many people into poverty and increases the likelihood of recidivism.
As far as voting rights, only two states (Vermont and Maine) permit full enfranchisement to prisoners. Some states grant rights only after probation is completed while others permanently disenfranchise felons. As a result, approximately one in forty adults are either temporarily or permanently barred from voting. Of course, being the United States, these laws disproportionately impact the black community. Almost eight percent of black adults are currently disenfranchised. Granting voting rights to current prisoners is a hard idea to sell in the United States, but we must remember that prison populations are still counted toward census data. This means prisoners give rural districts (where prisons are often located) voting power, without being able to vote themselves. Essentially, prisoners are subject to a modern day three-fifths compromise. Furthermore, giving prisoners the right to vote aids the rehabilitation process by fostering a sense of belonging, ownership of government and civic duty.
Sentencing reform is another important issue on the list of demands. Organizers are targeting truth in sentencing laws, which markedly reduce opportunities for parole, keeping people in prison and leading to overcrowding. Racial disparities in sentencing are also important to address; black Americans are almost three times more likely to be imprisoned for non-violent drug crimes than white Americans, even though both groups use and sell drugs at roughly the same rate. Policies such as mandatory minimums and three strike laws further exacerbate this racial bias and overcrowding.
Activists also demand better access to rehabilitation services. This demand has widespread public support and for good reason: increased investment in rehabilitation would be beneficial to everyone. Studies show that education and job training can reduce the likelihood of recidivism significantly, which makes prisons less expensive to run and decreases the burden on taxpayers.
Unfortunately for the strikers, greed has corrupted the already flawed prison system. Private prisons have grown exponentially in the past 20 years, and they have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo of severe sentencing laws and rampant recidivism. Through campaign donations and lobbying, private prison corporations like GEO Group and CoreCivic have acquired significant clout in Washington and state capitals nationwide. They utilize their influence to push for harsh sentencing laws and most recently, have lobbied for increased funding of the Immigration Customs and Enforcement agency (ICE). Immigrant detention is a $2.5 billion industry, and private facilities house three-quarters of detainees. Conspicuously, GEO Group and CoreCivic have each donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to Donald Trump, a president who has ramped up immigrant detention and reversed Obama-era standards which would have phased out private prisons. The powerful prosecutor lobby plays an important role as well, opposing common sense criminal justice reforms across the country.
Fighting these corporate interests that depend on mass incarceration to survive is an uphill battle, but this is an issue worth fighting for. Prisoners deserve rights. If you want to support the strike, call a prison warden, support progressive candidates and amplify the voices of prisoner activists who are limited in their freedom of expression. Solidarity is key to this movement; prisoner activists alone cannot change the system.
Harry Zehner is a contributor for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.