The video — out-of-focus and apparently shot with a smuggled cellphone camera — shows a black man toiling with a gardening hoe under the Alabama sun.
“This is not an old film from the . . . 1800s, 1700s. This is 2013 inside the Alabama Department of Corrections,” the narrator announces. “We don’t know what his circumstances and conditions are — why he has to work this job. All we know is that he’s not being compensated for his labor.”
The prisoner, according to the narrator, is not required to attend GED classes or job training courses — but he is required to work, or he will be punished.
Inmates across the United States planned to start a nearly three-week-long strike Tuesday to protest what they are calling “modern-day slavery.” Tuesday marks the day that George Jackson, a well-known black activist, was killed in 1971 at San Quentin State Prison — and Sept. 9, the day that the strike is scheduled to end, is the day that prisoners took over Attica Correctional Facility in New York that same year, according to USA Today.
Jailhouse Lawyers Speak, a nationwide collective of prisoners leading the strike, said it is in response to a riot this year at the Lee Correctional Institution in South Carolina, where seven inmates died and many others were injured. One expert said it could have a notable impact on prison operations across the United States.
Inmates are calling for better living conditions, fair wages and government funding for education.
“Prisoners understand they are being treated as animals,” Jailhouse Lawyers Speak said in a statement this month. “Prisons in America are a war zone. Every day prisoners are harmed due to conditions of confinement.”
The Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee, a prisoner-led trade group supporting the nationwide strike, said in a news release that inmates across the United States are expected to stage “peaceful sit-ins, hunger strikes, work strikes and boycotts” outlined by the Free Alabama Movement’s “Campaign to Redistribute the Pain 2018.” It’s unclear exactly how many of the nation’s 2.3 million prison inmates plan to take part in the strike.
Ann Jacobs, director of the Prisoner Reentry Institute at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, said there are many ways in which the strike may be problematic for prison systems.
Jacobs said because prisons rely on prisoners for labor — to cook and serve meals, wash laundry and maintain grounds, among other things — “all of that could be affected and the prisons would have a very real kind of crisis in terms of how they operate.” She added that in some states, inmates also provide products and services for the outside world, such as in California, where they help fight raging wildfires.
Jacobs said although the notion of inmates making demands may seem off-putting to some people, the things that the inmates are requesting are “insightful.”
“There is nothing that is outrageous or radical or inappropriate,” she said. She said they are things that “we should be taking seriously and trying to operationalize.”
Amani Sawari, an apparent spokeswoman for the strike, said in a blog post over the weekend that Jailhouse Lawyers Speak released a list of 10 demands in April after the riot in South Carolina. As The Washington Post reported at the time, corrections officials said the cause of what has been called one of the deadliest prison brawls in recent history is unclear, but that word of it had spread through cellphones smuggled into Lee Correctional Institution.
Jailhouse Lawyers Speak, which is leading the charge, previously posted the demands, stating inmates “must be paid the prevailing wage in their state or territory for their labor,” must retain voting rights and must never be “sentenced to Death by Incarceration or serve any sentence without the possibility of parole” or be denied parole “because the victim of the crime was white.”
The inmates are also demanding Pell grants be reinstated to help pay for their college educations as well as unfettered access to rehabilitation services.