"Made in America" has a few downsides, namely exploitation (Yay!)
by Megan Townsend
In one voice, rising from the cells of long term solitary confinement, echoed in the dormitories and cell blocks from Virginia to Oregon, we prisoners across the United States vow to finally end slavery in 2016. This sentence begins the statement released by the IWW’s Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee calling all prison workers to strike beginning on September 9th, 2016 (the 45th anniversary of the revolt at Attica Prison).
Thus began the largest prison strike in US history. It refers to the loophole in the 13th amendment, which outlaws slavery except as punishment for a crime. On September 9th, workers at the Holman Correctional Facility in Alabama, working with the Free Alabama Movement, did not report to work, and were quickly followed by workers in Florida, California, Michigan, and South Carolina. In Oakland, Portland, and other cities across the country people took to the streets and shut down roads to protest treatment of prison workers Tactics range from not presenting for work to hunger striking, as well as physical rebellion and destruction of prison property. .As of September 21st, there are 46 US prisons that have seen disruptions since the beginning of the strike. In Holman, the prison guards have joined the resistance and also gone on strike to protest unfair treatment of prisoners. Thanks to organizers working both inside and outside of prisons, the strike is able to continue, but it is incredibly time sensitive. It is not easy to get news of what is going on within the prison walls to the general public - prison slave labor has been kept harshly undercover since its beginning, and word of the strikes is most often suppressed in hopes that it will weaken without outside acknowledgment. Many prisons went into lockdown in response to strikes or protests, and ‘problem’ prisoners or leaders of the movement are being placed in solitary confinement, denied of access to communication, as punishment. Most mainstream media outlets are not covering the strike, which is why it is such a surprise to the general public. This is the same problem America repeatedly faces - all of our popular news sources are connected to, or supported by, corporations. These same corporations are exploiting prison labor. The annual output of the prison labor industry is $2 billion. American corporations are making their profits from this, which is why they don’t want anyone knowing about it. NBC, CNN, The New York Times, and the news sources we rely most heavily on are continuing to shape our public narrative through the eyes and in the favor of the oppressors.
For some background on prison labor and why it is intrinsically unethical: wages for the average prison worker range from $0.12-$0.40/an hour. All able-bodied prisoners are required to work. There are almost no safety regulations in the average prison workplace and their earnings are still taxable. It is easy for corporations to get free labor from our prisons and cite their products as ‘Made in the USA.’ We must not forget what our prison population looks like either: the United States makes up 5% of the world’s population but 25% of the world’s prison population. We have the most incarcerated citizens in any country in the world. And the highest offenses for incarceration are drug offenses, with 46% of prisoners convicted on drug crimes (with only 8.3% for sexual offenses, 3.1% for homicide/aggravated assault, and 0.3% for white-collar crimes like embezzlement and banking/insurance fraud). This is disproportionate. And, most importantly, we cannot ignore that 38% of our prison population is black.
This issue is deeply intersectional. The prison population is already comprised of vulnerable individuals, with deep, systemic bias against the trans, queer, and immigrant communities as well as communities of color. The percentage of prisoners serving time for immigration offenses is 8.8% (recall: still significantly higher than sexual offenses, murder, or white-collar crimes). Our most vulnerable populations then continue to be marginalized and exploited in prison, as free laborers and disposable bodies.
It is impossible to even trace every American company that benefits from prison labor, but a few that are well-known are: American Express, Aramark (our very own food service provider!), AT&T, AutoZone, Bank of America, BP, Costco Wholesale, Fruit of the Loom, JanSport, Johnson & Johnson, Kmart, Koch Industries, McDonald’s, Microsoft, Motorola, Nintendo, Procter & Gamble, Quaker Oats, Starbucks, Target, Verizon, Victoria’s Secret, Wal-Mart, Wendy’s...
Prison Workers on strike need the help of people from the outside. Some things you, reader, can do: research, learn, and tell your friends. Visit itsgoingdown.org to see updates on the strike, as well as the Support Prisoner Resistance site. Boycott companies who use prison labor, help support social media campaigns (follow @for_kinetic, @IGD_News, @PrisonerSol541), write letters to prisoners (info on websites), and keep an eye on campus news for some organizing around the issue. The Prison Strikers are calling for a week of solidarity October 15-22, and we must show our support. The organizers say it best: “When we remove the economic motive and grease of our forced labor from the US prison system, the entire structure of courts and police, of control and slave-catching must shift to accommodate us as humans, rather than slaves.”