On Aug. 21, incarcerated workers in at least 17 states will strike to demand humane living conditions, access to rehabilitation, sentencing reform and the prohibition of exploitative labor practices amounting to modern day slavery. Protesters will take the streets in cities across the country in solidarity. And we should all show up to support them — because the exploitation of prison labor impacts us all.
With jobs that include factory work, farm labor and fighting wildfires, nearly 900,000 incarcerated people are working for an average of twenty cents an hour, and in at least three states, for no compensation at all. Cheap prison labor saves governments and private contractors billions of dollars every year and is essential to the success of many US industries.
But for the captive labor force in US prisons, the benefits of this arrangement are few. Incarcerated workers lack bargaining power on every front: they are also captive consumers. With compensation barely amounting to a dollar a day, inmates struggle to buy price-gouged commissary necessities like $8 tampons. The high price of phone calls (over a dollar a minute in many facilities) makes communication with loved ones a luxury even those working struggle to afford.
Even without these costs, saving money on the average prison salary is a near impossibility; an inmate working full-time who saved every cent for three years would only leave with only $1,248—and would likely face staggering fees upon release. This erects barriers to reentry for those paroled without the resources to feed or house themselves. Many end up homeless and struggle to find employment, which increases their likelihood of recidivism.
Industries employing incarcerated workers profit at the expense of families most in need — despite working full time, parents cannot support their children from behind bars. The ripple effects of prison labor on markets also impact workers on the outside: industries that profit from employing prisoners gain an unfair advantage over competitors who are bound by U.S. labor laws. The United States labor movement has long opposed prison labor. By creating a supply of exceedingly cheap labor, the prison labor regime hurts all workers by devaluing the same work performed on the outside.
The thirteenth amendment of the United States Constitution bans slavery, but with a critical exception: slavery remains permitted “as punishment for a crime.” Unfortunately for legal advocates of incarcerated workers, this exception precludes the possibility of bringing a constitutional challenge to the practice. This is why civil society must organize to change the law. A constitutional amendment could close the 13th amendment loophole. States could enact minimum wage requirements for prison employers.
But absent the political will to advance legislative protection, incarcerated workers are doing what exploited workers have done for centuries before them: they are engaging in collective action. In 2016, at least 20,000 prisoners across 11 states participated the largest prison strike in U.S. history. Earlier this year, workers across 8 Florida prisons coordinated a work stoppage. The facilities retaliated by locking strike organizers in solitary confinement.
Despite the scope of these protests and the huge risks the strikers have taken to make their voices heard, the demonstrations have been scarcely reported and largely ignored by the outside. Let’s not leave them in the dark this time. Support the Aug. 21 action. The exploitation of incarcerated workers hurts us all. It’s time we start paying attention.
—Julia Neusner J.D. ’20
Neusner is a J.D./M.A. candidate at Stanford Law. Contact her at email@example.com