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Prison Labor Revolts Shake Foundations Of Corporate State

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Part I

From the Ground Up” is an ongoing series of articles co-conceived by and Commonomics USA, in which we explore people and organizations dedicated to direct action and grassroots projects for economic justice. This is the first of a two-part series previewing the upcoming prison actions happening September 9. 


Here’s why the September 9 actions inside and outside of American prisons, undertaken to protest the legalized slavery, dehumanization, and policy failure of correctional incarceration, may be the most important protests of 2016: Prisoners are legal slaves, and as such, whatever is happening to the non-incarcerated in this brutal system is happening worse to the incarcerated.

Beyond the 13th Amendment’s approval of prison slavery, there is a mountain of administrative and judicial rulings permitting prisons to suppress any and all organizing activity. Private prisons go a step further, enslaving prisoners as laborers in their own profit-making ventures.

Our direct or indirect relationship to that labor makes us all party to mass alienation. “On average, prisoners work 8 hours a day, but they have no union representation and make between .23 and $1.15 per hour, over 6 times less than federal minimum wage,” writesKelley Davidson of US Uncut. Corporations such as Wal-Mart, Whole Foods and McDonalds purchase products made by inmates earning pennies per hour – in the case of Whole Foods, prisoners allegedly make 74 cents a day, raising tilapia the company sells for $11.99 per pound.

“We are so alienated from whether the products we consume are produced by slave labor – whether prison slavery here or sweatshops abroad,” Azzurra Crispino, a member of the Incarcerted Workers Organizing Committee (IWOC) and co-founder of Prison Abolition Prisoner Solidarity (PAPS), tells me. “We are alienated from each other.”

This terrible interpretation of the constitution won’t be challenged, its legal and commercial underpinnings dismantled, he says, unless people on the inside and the outside create a crisis by striking and demonstrating. The question is how to make people care – particularly mainstream labor organizations with neither the resource bandwidth nor the ideological clarity to include incarcerated workers.

Azzura says she found it easier than some might think to make people care. “I am also the community engagement chair for my local of the American Federation of Teachers. Many teachers are becoming more aware of the school to prison pipeline and want to support prisoners. To me, the key to winning people over to the cause is to humanize individual prisoners,” she says.

“PAPS likes to reconstruct a solitary confinement space on the street and ask passersby to write to prisoners,” says Azzura of her organization, whose tactics include creative, performative protest. “It’s heartbreaking to watch people who have been held in solitary sit and stare at the masking tape marking out the space. It’s easy to discount ‘prisoners,’ but showing the individual stories makes that harder.”


There have been several successful protests in prisons around the country in recent years, in states including Georgia, Illinois, Virginia, North Carolina, Washington, California and Texas. Incarcerated activists and their allies have taken advantage of social media and also communicated with one another via unauthorized cell phones and word of mouth. A new hunger strike action by Wisconsin prisoners against solitary confinement began just a month ago.

The protests slated for Sept. 9 aim to be a culmination of, and a revolutionary step forward, from previous actions. In April, a prisoner resistance blog published a joint statement by several inmate groups declaring that a nationally coordinated prisoner work stoppage would occur Sept. 9 – the 45th anniversary of the Attica uprising of 1971, considered perhaps the most significant uprising of the prisoner rights movement. The statement concluded: “We prisoners across the United States vow to finally end slavery in 2016.”

But it’s a dangerous chasm for people on the organizing side. Past successes increase the likelihood that guards will brutally suppress the actions of Sept. 9. Organizers have chosen to take that risk head-on – to publicize it and the action itself. This places a huge responsibility on the shoulders of the outside organizers and supporters, and makes it vital that individuals and groups stand up and be part of the action in whatever way they can. “When we stand up to these authorities,” the inmate organizers write in their April statement, “they come down on us, and the only protection we have is solidarity from the outside.”

The struggle doesn’t end with prison labor. Prisons also serve a generally repressive function, of which labor is a particular manifestation. “Slavery, and prison-slavery, is transparently exploitation,” says Jimi Del Duca, Media Co-Chair of the Industrial Workers of the World’s IWOC. “Our goal is to help the public understand that being sentenced to slavery is not helping anyone except the ruling class. It harms the working class and hardens those incarcerated, thus providing future slaves.” With the acceleration of capitalism’s crises and contradictions, Del Duca says, “people listen with understanding today to what they could not comprehend a decade ago.”

Incidental to the revolutionary goals of the Sept. 9 actions, organizations like the IWW, the National Lawyer’s Guild and my organization, Commonomics USA, also hope the actions will inspire dramatic policy changes in our incarceration system, from living wages paid to prisoners to a rejection of incarceration as a default correctional tool.

Del Duca, who has worked in the mental health profession, tells me what many doctors, social workers and legal professionals I’ve talked to also believe: Incarceration is a policy failure. “Offenders should be released the day they are determined to no longer be a threat to the public,” he says. “Those who remain dangerous should be housed in very humane psychiatric facilities, not torture chambers. Limiting incarceration to truly dangerous and violent people is our IWOC goal, and even then with full rehabilitation programs and humane conditions, including therapy and psychiatric treatment as well as real education and skills training.”


Ending up in prison is also a class issue. “Occupy opened a lot of eyes for people whose class privilege kept them from having negative experiences with police and needless incarceration,” Azzura says. “Black Lives Matter has driven that awareness even further.” There are potentially millions of innocent people in prison and only a few, like Michael Morton (who was wrongfully convicted of murdering his wife after prosecutorial misconduct) are fortunate enough to be exonerated.

“As the Michael Morton story – and so many others – have shown, any of us could end up in prison, even if we do nothing illegal. We owe it to our society and community to begin a new chapter in history,” adds Azzura adds. With enough public support for the unspeakable bravery of organizers and protesters behind bars, Sept. 9 could be a foundation and a spark. What was that thing about nothing to lose but our chains?

Part II


This is the second installment of a two-part series about the upcoming September 9 prison labor strike. Read the first part here.

“Maximum utilization of the U.S. prison system as a weapon of class warfare was part of the neoconservative agenda initiated during the Reagan administration. As the keynote speaker to the 1981 convention of the American Correctional Association … Associate Attorney General Rudolph Giuliani articulated the new policy in classical conservative terms. ‘In the beginning,’ he said, ‘man formed government to protect against the danger of invaders from without as well as predators from within. National defense and domestic defense are, therefore, the two primal functions of any government. Our criminal justice system is charged with one of these two primal tasks.’ No subsequent administration, including that of Democratic President Bill Clinton, has deviated from the prison policies established during the early 1980s.” – [Richard D. Vogel](

In the video, recorded and distributed via an unauthorized cell phone, a man speaks from a corner of cinderblock walls, pointing to a pile of hideous-looking meat patties. He’s hard to hear because of the noise of people and the recording quality.

“We don’t know what it is,” he says calmly. “We don’t eat it. We can’t eat it. It’s raw.”

He uses a piece of metal to pick the meat apart, displaying pink and gray uncooked substances. There are obviously huge chunks of raw and dirty meat in the patties, which are burnt on one side, undercooked on the other, and a nauseating color in the middle. Finally, the prisoner faces the camera phone and explains that prisons save money by feeding spoiled food to inmates, that this is part of the cost-benefit calculus of the prison system.

The men producing these illegal videos in Alabama are part of the Free Alabama Movement, one of many groups organizing nationwide events on September 9 to protest the prison-industrial complex from both inside and outside prison walls. Prisoners are asking those of us on the outside to organize loud and disruptive displays of solidarity.

It’s a strike against the most honest manifestation of our political and economic machines. Prisoners in facilities all over the country will stage acts of civil disobedience and work resistance. Meanwhile, coordinated demonstrations will happen in dozens of cities:

  • In front of Washington Department of Corrections offices in Olympia, the Northwest Prisoner Support group will stage a noise demonstration.
  • In downtown Portland, Oregon, activists will gather at Chapmand Square to protest corporations that profit from prison labor. Down the road in Eugene, there will be a panel discussion at Old Nick’s Pub.
  • Further south, in Eureka, California, Humboldt Grassroots will demonstrate at the courthouse, while Santa Barbara activists will hold a rally outside the county jail.
  • There will be rallies in Phoenix, Tucson, and Buckeye, Arizona.
  • The Milwaukee Industrial Workers of the World will host a solidarity picnic and event at Garden Park.
  • Noise demonstrations will take place in Indiana, Minnesota, and Michigan, among others.
  • In Austin, Texas, demonstrators will convene outside Texas Correctional Industries South Austin Showroom, which displays products made by Texas prisoners. Other protests are taking place in Denton and Houston.
  • More demonstrations are scheduled in Maryland, Washington D.C., Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Providence, Rochester, Brooklyn, the Bronx, and Camden, New Jersey.
  • Southern states will come alive, with a march in Durham, North Carolina, a demonstration in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and protests in Nashville, New Orleans, Atlanta and Bessemer, Alabama.

Demanding Humanization

Ben Turk, an anarchist playwright who has helped organize prison resistance for several years, told me he hopes that the coordinated rally “wrenches the dialogue about mass incarceration reform from the hands of bootlicking prison-lovers like Hillary Clinton.”

Turk and other activists aren’t convinced by Clinton’s recent turnaway from private prisons. Whether private or public, Turk said, “the reformist vision of the future is suburbanized poverty and adding de facto open air prisons, strategic hamlets or favelas on the outskirts of every U.S. city,” and Clinton won’t stand in the way of this.

“I want September 9 to shift the American cultural landscape and perception of prisoners and the prison system enough that dear friends of mine who are trapped in the system have reason to hope that one day they will find justice and walk in a forest again. I want September 9 to save lives, or at least open up the possibility that our struggle to save lives won’t be so futile anymore.”

This deep, humanizing solidarity with incarcerated people drives me, too, and has driven me since I started talking and writing about prison labor. As an experiment prior to writing this article, I asked people across my social networks whether they had friends or family members who’d served time in prison. An overwhelming number, across all identity lines, said yes. That potential for personalization is going to be very important for a movement to humanize and emancipate the incarcerated.

“I think criminalization and stigmatization run deep,” Turk said. “The state has done a good job of convincing us to reduce prisoners to whatever crime they were convicted of, regardless of all the circumstances and unreliability of the criminal legal system.”

Why don’t more progressives recognize this? I asked. “Too many progressive groups are largely unaware of how corrupt dishonest, absurd and bankrupt the prison system is as a whole and they remain afraid of someone who has been othered by this system,” he responded. Turk said people should get to know folks in prison, corresponding with them and listening to how they got there.

The stakes are high, not only for the system, but for prisoners. Incarceration itself is physical torture, and the spatiality of imprisonment creates unhealthy bodies whose debilitation serves as an unconstitutional extension of their punishment. Prisons create and facilitate micropolitical spaces of brutalization. If you lock thousands of people up in a complex of buildings, beatings, sexual assaults and the creation of oppressive hierarchies are natural outgrowths, not inconvenient implementation problems.

Bad Policies, Bad Systems

If, in addition to justice, we’re also concerned about effectiveness (crime control, recidivism, etc.), mass incarceration fails as a public policy. Alternatives are possible. But we can’t explore those alternatives without severing the relationship between prisons and the corporatist state.

“Corporate” and “state” aren’t just words being thrown around capriciously. A friend of mine, teaching at a school in Virginia, recently expressed her shock that university procurement policy requires buying from Virginia Correctional Enterprises as first source. Like most states, Virginia uses labor from its public prisons to make an array of products for government purchase, paying prisoners less than a dollar an hour, then celebrating the program’s rehabilitative capacities. Our legal system, and even the international legal system, accepts the reality of unpaid and underpaid labor as part of the experience of being incarcerated, with no consideration for the central role of the prisoner’s labor power in the creation of value for others.

So, from an economic justice perspective, there’s more at stake than just incarceration as an ineffective policy. Any transition to a just and sustainable economic system must include humanizing and politicizing incarceration. Insofar as we envision detention or incarceration as necessities in a just world (if so, much less of it than we have now), we must regard the incarcerated person’s humanity and material needs as no different from the non-incarcerated.

The prison system is the ideological muscularity of capitalism. Incarceration represents the power of the state to control not only our movement, but also our labor and the internal and external interactions of our bodies. The “macro” forces of extraction and exploitation are reproduced in concentrated, oppressively intimate forms in prison. So a revolt against all of that – against the concentrated material exploitation, the extraction of value from the body of the prisoner through slave labor, solitary confinement, assignment into violence, allowance of sexual battery – is a revolt against capitalism itself.

On Friday, activists hope that revolt will take organized and energetic form. There will likely be events in your cities and states. This would be a good opportunity to engage in grassroots activism for the most marginalized of all marginalized, and meet others who share this deeply-rooted concern.

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