Here at Corporate Accountability Lab, we focus on global supply chains. We talk about forced labor in China and poverty wages in Bangladesh. We talk about workers producing for the US market who lack the most basic protections. And we do this as attorneys, with top notch educations, leveraging the power of our privilege to fight for human rights and the environment.
But I’m going to get personal here. I know about labor exploitation because I have been exploited. I know about workplace sexual harassment because I have been harassed. And I know about forced labor because I have done it, right here in the US, just like hundreds of thousands of other inmates in the federal and state prisons of this country.
Back in 2002, I spent six months in federal prison for an act of civil disobedience to close the U.S. Army School of the Americas. While I was there, I separated scrap metal and drove a forklift for 12 cents per hour. I was managed by almost-exclusively male guards, had to fight for basic necessities like tampons, and became debilitated for weeks by poor nutrition and nonexistent health care. My experience differed only in the details from the other 800,000 prison laborers in the US, comprising almost a third of the 2.2 million people incarcerated today.
When I saw the news about the nationwide prison strike, set to last three weeks and span at least 17 states, my jaw dropped. And not because they are crazy. Our mass incarceration problem and conditions of confinement are a domestic human rights abuse on an extraordinary scale. The prisoners’ demands are basic: Improve conditions. End forced labor. Pass legislation to address the disproportionate incarceration of black and brown folks. Let prisoners vote, get rehabilitation services, and access higher education. These are common sense demands that would reduce recidivism, improve economic opportunity for prisoners, and provide for something closer to compliance with the constitution and international norms.
What is shocking about this is that they have even gotten this far (and yes, it’s only day two). When I was incarcerated, I tried my hand at prisoner organizing. I worked with a small group of women to organize a few trainings on how to use the media to draw attention to the criminally negligent medical care at the facility. Of course, organizing, and even meeting in a group larger than 5 without permission, was prohibited. Just before I was released, we managed to host a meeting with 200 women, where we talked press releases, talking to the media, and basic legal and writing skills. It was, frankly, terrifying. And while it’s easy to say prisoners have nothing to lose, there is always something to lose. There are tiny comforts that become precious in the midst of extraordinary darkness, and their loss is devastating.
So what can organizing prisoners lose? Well, they could get reassigned from a bunk where they were comfortable, to one with a crazy bunk mate. They could lose phone privileges or get a worse work assignment. They could be harrassed by the guards who will constantly search their few belongings, force them to do degrading tasks in front of fellow inmates, or refuse to approve new visitors for their visitation lists. And of course there is always the threat of violence from guards and other inmates, and or being moved to solitary. Prison organizing is a very dangerous business.
So I can tell you from personal experience, this prison strike is nothing short of a desperate act of love, by brave people, with incredible organizing ability, and so much to lose. They could be advocating only for themselves: pursuing their appeals, filing complaint after complaint to get basic health care, making a life that is tolerable under their circumstances. Instead, they are taking the extraordinary risk of banding together to support their sisters and brothers in prisons and jails across this country.
When we reflect on the level of risk they are taking, we have to ask ourselves, have we ever taken a risk so great for others? Are we true to our values as people of faith, or as activists, or as citizens of this country? Can we, from our places of relative privilege, be as brave as this group of convicted criminals?
Oh, and there’s a big corporate accountability angle to this story we can’t leave out. There’s great literature out there about the prison industrial complex and whether the profit motive is a driver of over-incarceration (spoiler alert: obviously).
But let me just tell you my story.
My labor was not a part of the private prison labor market, though aspects of our work were privatized. I was employed by the prison to deal with the waste products (metal scraps) of our Unicor (Federal Prison Industries) factory.
Our factory made cages. Specifically, cages for immigrants. They were small, and fit in the back of a pickup truck. Immigration agents put the cages in their trucks and rode around the desert near the border, picking up the hungry, thirsty poor that flock to our borders. The cages had handy illustrations demonstrating how to hook the waist chain, ankle chains, and handcuffs into the body of the cage. The instructions said eight adult men could fit, with an illustration to show how they had to rest their chest on their legs (the top was very low) to get in there. We would even affix an “escape proof guarantee” for good measure.
I would drive over with my forklift and take the dumpsters full of metal waste to the pole barn, where we would use magnets to separate the steel from the aluminum. I would sit there, with my magnet, in the cold, and watch the trucks arrive to be loaded with cages a few times per week. The women employed by Unicor, many of them Latina, were paid a little better than I was. Unicor, after all, was supposedly part of their “job training” and rehabilitation. It appears that the psychological effects of this labor situation was lost on whoever designed this system.
Then with my 12 cents per hour wage, I could buy stamps (3 hours to mail a letter), shampoo (45 hours for a bottle), laundry soap (20 hours), peanut butter (67 hours), or tampons (120 hours) on the commissary.
Now, many prisoners produce directly for private companies, and private companies are often contracted for commissary and health care. And then many prisons are wholly private, run by Corecivic or Geogroup. In many state and local jails, inmates pay exorbitant rates to private companies to make phone calls home. The ACLU, the Brennan Center and others have documented the impact of profiting off of incarceration.
But my point here is that we almost don’t need the research. The prison strikers today are pointing out what should be obvious to all of us: our system is broken, and full of problematic economic incentives that undermine human dignity. I have no illusions about who we have been historically as a country, or who we are today. But if we have any hope of being better, we need to stand with these strikers, recognize their bravery and sacrifice, and demand their protection.
Charity Ryerson is a co-founder and Legal Director for Corporate Accountability Lab.