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The Reflector

The Student Newspaper of Mississippi State University

The Reflector

The Student Newspaper of Mississippi State University

The Reflector

National prison strike deserves public attention

The largest prison strike in United States history has been underway since Sept. 9. The strike began in Alabama’s Holman Prison, and word quickly spread through activists on the outside. 

Groups such as Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee worked to distribute information regarding the strike to inmates and their family members across the country. The Marshall Project has most recently received reports of strike participants spanning 12 states in at least 29 prisons, with approximately 24,000 inmates taking part in the strike. Have not heard about this yet? Well, most Americans have not either. 

Even though the prison strike extends throughout the country and sets the record as the largest strike, uniting inmates from a variety of states, there has been very little news coverage. This leaves much of the general population clueless about what is occurring behind bars. 

There are several reasons why this is the case. Media Matters conducted a Nexis search of the major news networks, such as CNN, NBS, ABC and Fox, and their coverage of the nationwide prison strike throughout the month following the Sept. 9. The report came up “almost completely empty on coverage” with the exception of a few instances that added up to less than four minutes of coverage in total. 

Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Ethan Zuckerman points to the lack of access reporters have to prisons and the discretion utilized by prison officials in answering inquiries regarding issues inside prisons as potential causal factors in the lack of news coverage. The lack of news coverage is also arguably the result of an election season that has dominated the media’s attention. 

Even considering these factors, I believe the lack of attention given to the prison strike by both the media and public speaks to the character of a society that has historically disregarded the strife of the incarcerated.

Dr. Heather Ann Thompson, a professor at the University of Michigan, pointed out that although there is not a set list of demands called for by strikers, participants are protesting issues ranging from solitary confinement to inhumane labor conditions. 

The one issue that has occupied center stage throughout the movement is a call for humane wages and working conditions for prisoners, a reform long overdue. 

Although most know the 13th amendment for its abolition of slavery and involuntary servitude, what many do not realize is that within this landmark change to the Constitution, there is an exception. The exception allows for involuntary labor for those convicted of a crime. 

Prisons have long since used this loophole. As the prison populations have exploded over the past 40 years, so did the industry of prison labor. 

According to The Marshall Project, approximately 700,000 inmates hold daily jobs with 60,000 of these holding positions that resemble real-world jobs through the government’s Unicor program and contractual agreements with outside companies. 

Companies like McDonald’s, Victoria’s Secret and Walmart use prison labor as a means of production with inmates sewing garments and picking produce.

 Even though many of these jobs are essentially the same as employer-employee relationships seen outside of prison, judges have ruled that inmates do not have the same rights given to employees under the Fair Labor Standards Act. 

The average wage inmates receive as listed by the Federal Bureau of Prisons is between 23 cents an hour and $1.25 an hour. However, in some states—such as Texas, Georgia, and Arkansas—inmates receive no pay for their work. 

The problem with this is not that inmates are required to work, but that inmates are not given proper compensation for their work—nor are they given a means of demanding better pay. 

The exploitation of prison labor is not only an injustice to the individual, but also to the economy. Professor Gordon Lafer, an associate professor at the University of Oregon’s Labor Education and Research Center, stated, “convict labor not only takes decently paid jobs out of the economy; it also undermines the living standards of those who remain employed by forcing their employers to compete with firms that use prisoners.” 

In a USA Today article Dr. Lafter cited instances such as “a south Georgia recycling plant laid off 50 workers … and replaced them with prison laborers…” and “…the church-owned Sacred Heart Hospital canceled its contract with a unionized linen service and redirected the work to a prison laundry.” 

The exploitation of prison labor serves as a hindrance for economic progress, diminishes the value of inmates in the eye of society and perpetuates a modernized form of slavery. 

Even with all of this information, you may still be wondering—why should you care about the experiences of those behind bars? This is the question asked by a majority of Americans that have allowed a month to pass without adequate coverage of the nation’s largest prison strike. 

Many would argue that regardless of whether unpaid labor should be allowed in general, the fact that it is occurring in prisons is simply a matter of further punishing the criminal. Following the logic that inmates do not deserve humane treatment because they chose to deviate from legal and decent behavior, it is very easy to dismiss the concerns brought up in the ongoing protest. 

However, this logic is dangerous for two reasons: first, it ignores the glaring modern slavery seen in a prison system that profits off the backs of society’s lower-class and marginalized members. Second, it overlooks the innate value that each man and woman holds, even those living in prison cells. 

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National prison strike deserves public attention