On Sept. 9, many federal and state prisons and county jails became the grounds for the largest inmate strike in U.S. history. The strike was a mass refusal, by inmates across 24 states, to continue to be forced into free labor by the prison system. Small protests in support of the prison strike called the forced labor of inmates a form of modern slavery.
The strike should be taken seriously by the media, prison system and government so that forced labor for little to no pay for prisoners can be put to an end, or at least reformed so that it can benefit the rehabilitation of America’s prisoners.
The United States has the largest prison population in the world, with more than 1.57 million estimated inmates in federal, state and county prisons and jails across the country, writes Nicole Flatow in her Sept. 17, 2014, article “The United States Has The Largest Prison – And It’s Growing,” for Think Progress.
The terms of the strike are demanding the right to unionize, a right to better healthcare, a protest against solitary confinement as a punishment and a protest against “prison slavery” and forced labor of inmates without fair compensation.
The inmates participating in this strike deserve to be heard, especially the non-violent offenders. Just because someone is serving a sentence does not rob her or him of the right to be treated like a human being.
The strike, now in its third week, currently includes 20 different prisons in Alabama, California, Florida, Indiana, Louisiana, Michigan, New York, Ohio, South Carolina and Washington, all of which are continuing to participate in hunger strikes, marches and a sit-down refusal to be forced to work.
On average a prisoner works eight hours a day, but she or he makes between 23 cents and $1.15 per hour, which is about six times less than the U.S. minimum wage, according to the Aug. 20, 2015, U.S. Uncut article, “These 7 Household Names Make a Killing Off of the Prison-Industrial Complex by Kelley Davidson. If an inmate refuses to work, she or he can be punished.
America’s prison system focuses on punishment rather than rehabilitation. Our prisons stay full due to frequent release and re-arrest of first time offenders.
Section one of the 13th Amendment states: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”
This is the loophole that the U.S. prison system uses to justify forced labor of its inmates, where refusal can be punishable by procedures like solitary confinement.
In Norway, a prisoner’s work is a part of their rehabilitation process. Inmates live in unbarred bedrooms, interact with guards, staff and therapists in a non-hostile environment and are taught skills they can take back with them into society when their sentence ends. Fewer than 4,000 of Norway’s 5 million citizens serve behind bars, writes Christina Sterbenz in her Dec. 11, 2014, article, “Why Norway’s prison system is so successful,” for Business Insider. Norway’s recidivism rate, for inmates who are released and become repeat offenders, is 20 percent; the U.S. rate is 76 percent.
America should focus more on rehabilitation, like Norway, instead of maintaining its current mentality of control, exploitation and mistreatment. Being locked away is enough of a punishment.
Forced labor and the exploitation of our prisoners is not how the problem gets solved. Only with fairness, compassion and rehabilitation, will inmates be given the tools to become contributing members of our society.
The nationwide strike demonstrates just how big the problem of forced labor really is – it isn’t just a form of punishment; it is a form of exploitative profit. The 13th Amendment should exclude its admittance of forced labor as a form of punishment since it will only benefit the companies who “employ” the inmates and not the inmates themselves.