In the context of a nation with less than five percent of the world’s population that simultaneously boasts of the ‘bottom-line’ benefits of having as much as a quarter or more of the Globe’s imprisoned people, when police state protocols and mass arrest have become ubiquitous in the United States, a recent gem from Roar Magazine that in one fell swoop reveals the fraudulence, hypocrisy, and distortions that are de rigeur in corporate media and delineates key points of recent happenings that these fake news companies have literally ignored, to wit a well organized and extensive strike by prison workers at the behest of the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee and others, an eventuality that Mint Press News makes clear is in conscious conjunction with the four and a half decade commemoration of the slaughter at Attica against prisoners with the temerity to claim their humanity; an occurrence that The Anti-Media notes fits with a prison system that tolls society with plus or minus a trillion and a half of hidden costs on an annual basis–which data and analysis a new white paper from The Concordance Institute backs up; events that various other progressive, non-profit, non-corporate news platforms also examine with panache and aplomb, notably Waging Nonviolence, a Portside Labor compilation, a pair of articles from TruthDig, the latter of which leads to a helpful video portal that begins with a mini-documentary on the prison strike movement, a Free Thought Project anti-slavery manifesto, a brilliant and incisive interview from Atlantic Magazine that rips to pieces the notion that America needs its protofascist prison-industrial-complex, a piece from Alternet that also focuses on media deficiencies, and a brief installment from TeleSur that, along with a longer look from RT, shows some of the international dimensions of this struggle; all of which are arguably easy and definitely necessary to view in a wider historical and political economic and social context, something that the World Organization of Writers does for scrappy scribes and stalwart citizens alike: “On a global level, the United States stands out as a leader in an expanding system of mass incarceration. America’s prisoner system holds over 2.2 million people, many for non-violent drug offenses. Many of them are believed to have their human rights violated as a result of poor living and working conditions. As populations swell, many prisons are exceeding their limits, housing inmates in overcrowded units with substandard healthcare and management systems.
Some 870,000 of these American prisoners are also workers, either in jobs keeping the prison wheels turning or with privately contracted companies. With prison labor as such a central part of incarceration system, the question is what would happen if they were actually recognized as a legitimate labor force.
This very question was posed by several incarcerated people who reached out to the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), a radical labor union with over a hundred years of militant struggle. While huge numbers of inmates have daily jobs, no other labor union would be willing to cross the barrier of incarceration and begin organizing those doing time. The IWW responded by setting up the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee (IWOC), and began a program to organize prisoners as workers. This meant looking at the common issues that prisoners are faced with, both in their workplaces and in their day-to-day lives, and see what power they have as workers within those institutions.
‘The idea is that IWOC organizes both incarcerated workers and those who stand in solidarity with them on the other side of the razor wire,’ said Azzurra Crispino, an organizer with IWOC and a part of their communications team. ‘The IWW really has a strong history of civil disobedience, people getting arrested and refusing to bail out and refusing to plead out in order to jam the jails. The IWW has been engaging in these tactics since the beginning. So there would naturally be a strong sense of solidarity between the IWW and incarcerated workers.’
The IWOC project came on the heels of organizations that have been laying the groundwork for years. The most prominent being the Free Alabama Movement (FAM), which has taken up a leading role in this prisoner-led reform movement with on-and-off prison strikes since January 2014.
Focusing on some of the worst prison conditions in the South, FAM came together as a prisoner-solidarity movement raising issues like toxic facility conditions and the inability for prisoners to count on promises from the administration. Along with them were a dozen other projects, from the Free Georgia Movement to the Free Ohio Movement, dealing directly with issues local inmates are facing. As these waves of prisoner organizing and strikes came through, a coalition formed with IWOC, Anarchist Black Cross, and several of these long-standing organizations to have a nation-wide prison strike. It is from this collaboration that the idea for the September 9 strike emerged, aiming to become one of the largest prison strikes in history.”—Roar Magazine
Meanwhile, America’s prisons constitute a multi-billion dollar industry. UNICOR, also known as the Federal Prison Industries, reported net sales from inmate-made products and services of $472 million in 2015, and this is only for federal institutions. Federal and state prisons combined are estimated to produce at least $2 billion in goods and services. In private prisons, there have even been reports of prison personnel selling inmate-made goods for personal profit. However, privately run facilities are facing increased scrutiny, as the Department of Justice recently announced it will no longer contract with private prison companies, and the Department of Homeland Security — which oversees immigration — is considering doing the same.
Inmates perform essential jobs like running recycling plants in Wisconsin, to fighting fires in California and Georgia. They also participate in a modern-day version of convict leasing, making uniforms for McDonald’s, running call centers for AT&T and even preparing artisanal cheeses sold at Whole Foods.
‘We make products for every type of business you can think of,’ said (Melvyn) Ray, (a founder of the Free Alabama Movement) who is being held in the St. Clair Correctional Facility in Springville, Alabama, which was ranked one of the deadliest prisons in the nation just two years ago, due to overcrowding and an indifferent warden. ‘[The businesses involved] understand that this is an operation of slavery and everyone is exploiting the free labor out of the prisons.’
In addition to generating revenue, the labor of inmates is essential to keeping the prisons themselves running. Inmates deliver mail, prepare food and do laundry. But, according to Support Prisoner Resistance and IWOC organizer Ben Turk, this is precisely why prison work strikes can have a significant impact on the state.”—Waging Nonviolence
Friedmann has personal experience with prison labor because he worked behind bars while he served his own prison term. His jobs ranged from working for the prison newspaper to screening T-shirts, including one that was a tie-in for a Batman movie. Most prison jobs, he noted, are designed to keep the facility running, rather than work that’s outsourced to private corporations.
The results of the strike won’t be known for days or weeks, said Azzurra Crispino, the media co-chair for the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee. ‘By withdrawing from participation in their work, they believe it’s the best way to have an impact on the prison industrial complex,’ she said. ‘This is not a one-day strike. the solutions to this problem are going to require at the very least a constitutional amendment change to be effective.’
The protest, organized across 24 states, is spearheaded by the inmate-led Free Alabama Movement (FAM) and coordinated by the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee (IWOC), a branch of an international labor union. Its manifesto, published online by ‘prisoners across the United States,’ reads: ‘This is a call to end slavery in America…To every prisoner in every state and federal institution across this land, we call on you to stop being a slave, to let the crops rot in the plantation fields, to go on strike and cease reproducing the institutions of your confinement.’
Higher wages can help not only inmates, but their dependents in the outside world, who might avoid ending up on welfare having greater support. Cheap inmate labor may save money for prisons or corporations, but meaningful, decently-paid employment and job training could reduce recidivism and future crime. Ultimately, it’s the taxpayers who pay for most of the criminal justice system, and that means they are subsidizing cheap labor for big corporations instead of investing in reducing crime in the future.
In addition to putting pressure on individual institutions, strike organizers are hoping to raise awareness among the public. ‘Nothing is preventing employers from paying prisoners a decent wage and offering benefits and after 300 years it’s pretty clear it isn’t going to happen on its own. No more than slavery was ended in this country because slave owners got enlightened,’ said Paul Wright, editor of Prison Legal News and prisoner rights advocate. ‘Alas, there is no General Sherman coming to rescue and liberate America’s prison slaves.'”—Portside Labor
Wage earners resisted these inequities and racketeering behaviors. They demanded their due. But, for the most part, especially after the ‘grand compromise’ of 1876, which spelled the end of Reconstruction and Federal oversight, employers acted with impunity. And if workers threatened to organize, as they did again and again in Tennessee, an uptick in misdemeanors always promised a ready supply of prisoners on whom to practice ‘stern oversight.’
One hundred twenty-three years ago—July, 1891—from Chattanooga to Knoxville and Westward into Central Tennessee, union and unorganized miners joined hands with each other and extended their hands to prisoners who were dying in droves to keep the lid on coal-mining unions and workers’ rights. Then, like now, the Prison Industrial Complex benefited some of the largest corporate forces, by supplying a cheap and disposable labor force.
The primary contractor in the Tennessee Convict Lease system was the Tennessee Coal, Iron, & Railroad Company. The largest employer in the South, one of the top industrial firms in the nation, capitalized from New York and Europe, TCI in 1907 merged with United States Steel interests, a few years after J.P. Morgan’s firm had gobbled up the Carnegie interests, to form the largest industrial company on earth. Other outfits, mostly smaller and marginal, also employed prison-labor—often ‘sublet’ from TCI, but convict-leasing’s origins and primary beneficiaries were the gargantuan companies at the pinnacle of the industrial pyramid
(In the case of the Coal Creek uprising in Tennessee in the mid-1890’s), (t)he United Mine Workers of America, the first union to insist that Whites and Blacks had to join the same organizations to fight for their rights as workers, was the primary labor nexus of leadership in the region. The Knights of Labor, with its secret codes and handshakes and radical rambunctiousness, also played a major part. Many workers joined these organizations in practice, even if they were not dues paying members.
One interesting aspect of this upheaval was that the miners were plus-or-minus ninety per cent White and the prisoners were almost one hundred per cent Black. Another fascinating piece of this story was that the union and unorganized colliers, with allies from community businesses and local agriculture, repeatedly confronted the militias assigned to oversee the prison-mines, and forced the release of the Black men incarcerated their. The victorious coal miners in such cases packed the jailed workers off to the State capitol or to Knoxville in the company of their keepers.”—World Organization of Writers