David C. Fathi is the director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Prison Project.
It’s hard to know exactly how many prisoners are taking part in the strike; prisons are closed environments, sealed off from the outside world. But state prison officials in Indiana, Nevada and North Carolina have already acknowledged strike activity, and there are credible reports of actions in several other states. The strike is likely one of the most extensive in the nation’s history.
Prisoners strike because they have virtually no other way of expressing their grievances. They can’t form organizations without the blessing of prison officials; in some prisons, even petitions are banned. And in every state except Maine and Vermont, convicted prisoners are deprived of the right to vote, sometimes even after they’ve served their time. Restoring the vote to all citizens — including the incarcerated — is one of the strikers’ demands.
Other demands include improved prison conditions and increased opportunities for rehabilitation. But it is the strike’s call for work stoppages and an end to what the organizers call “prison slavery” that has stirred the most attention.
The 13th Amendment abolished slavery and involuntary servitude, but its exclusion clause specifies that the amendment doesn’t apply to “punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.” The provision has been used to require convicted prisoners to work for little pay or even no pay, and they can be punished if they refuse.
It has been my experience that most prisoners want to work — they want to do something productive with their time. Prison jobs range from laundry to groundskeeping; from sweeping the cellblock to preparing prisoner meals. The jobs often have a strongly positive effect: They can teach skills and build self-esteem, as well as provide a break from the crushing monotony of prison life. But given the vast power disparity between prisoners and their employers, there is also a real potential for exploitation and abuse.
Laws that protect workers in the outside world don’t apply in prison, and if prisoners are injured or killed on the job, in most states they are not covered by workers’ compensation. Their ability to recover compensation in court is severely limited. All of these factors combine to make prisoners a uniquely vulnerable workforce.
So is it okay to require prisoners to work for no pay, as Texas does? Or to pay prisoners 15 cents an hour (Arizona), or 19 cents an hour (Pennsylvania)? The prisoners fighting California’s wildfires — extraordinarily dangerous work that has killed at least six firefighters so far this year — receive a princely $1.45 a day.
Many prison jobs are eagerly sought after, even at these meager wages. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t rethink the way we treat prisoner workers. One of the most important guiding principles in modern corrections is “normalization” — the idea that the prison environment should, insofar as possible, resemble the community to which most prisoners will eventually return. In the outside world, people are paid for their work and are rewarded for good job performance. There’s no reason prison jobs shouldn’t operate in the same way.
We also encourage people to plan for the future, including saving money for their future needs. Many prisoners leave prison penniless. They often struggle to find employment, facing ferocious discrimination in the job market. Finding housing is a similar challenge; more than a few former prisoners become homeless. Overwhelmed by these challenges, many return to jail or prison before long.
Why not pay prisoners a real wage, so they can save for the future and build a nest egg for their eventual release? The benefits — in successful reentry, lower recidivism and reduced human suffering — would be enormous.
Support for raising prisoners’ wages has come from an unexpected source: prison administrators themselves. In 2016, the American Correctional Association — the voice of the U.S. corrections profession since 1870 — passed a resolution calling for repeal of the 13th Amendment’s exclusion clause. The association decried “the historical applicability of slavery and involuntary servitude as acceptable punishment for those convicted of crimes.” If the people who run our prisons think it’s time to give prisoners a raise, perhaps it’s an idea whose time has come.