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Mon Dec 9, 2019, 09:23 PM

The Fight to Secure Labor Rights for Exploited Prisoners

By Kim Kelly

My tenure as Teen Vogue’s labor columnist began in earnest last year, to the puzzlement of some, and the goggle-eyed chagrin of white supremacists’ favorite Fox News host, Tucker Carlson. That first piece, from September 4, 2018, was very intentional in its focus on the most marginalized group of workers in the U.S.: those who are currently incarcerated within the nation’s labyrinthine prison system. When the piece ran, prisoners in 17 states were on strike, risking their safety and what was left of their freedom to take a stand against cruel, inhumane conditions that they and other incarcerated people across the country are forced to endure at the hands of the state.

Their 10 demands were straightforward, and sought to address systemic injustices as well as dangerous conditions within the prison walls. The strikers called for voting rights, for increased rehabilitation and educational opportunities, and for an end to racist policies. They also demanded an end to prison slavery, a horrifying reality that remains legal thanks to the 13th Amendment. A legal loophole buried within its text allows what amounts to slavery to be used as a penalty for those convicted of a crime — another toxic stain on the U.S. government’s already barbaric history. “The system of slavery continues not just in the prison setting but in the way people are rendered socially dead in amerikan society, in the white power structure assault on Black lives, communities of color, and on poor people's lives,” explained a member of the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee (IWOC), a branch of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) comprised of organizers inside and outside detention facilities, when I reached out around the anniversary of the 2018 strike.

Just over a year later, how much has changed? Those demands have not been met. Advocates say that conditions for people in prison have continued to deteriorate, and while the conversation about restoring voting rights to formerly incarcerated people (and those currently in prison) has picked up steam ahead of the 2020 presidential election, we’re still a long way from universal suffrage. But organizers say the sacrifices those incarcerated workers made in 2018 were not in vain.

IWOC collaborated with Jailhouse Lawyers Speak (JLS) and the Free Alabama Movement (FAM) to organize the 2018 strike. According to their spokesperson, despite the lack of movement around specific demands, the 2018 strike had a major impact on launching a deeper awareness of prison issues into the mainstream: “We see that the lexicon around incarceration has expanded. Prison experiences no longer seem as homogenized as just people wearing orange jumpsuits. While much of this work has been happening for a long time, to humanize people who are often completely dehumanized, the prevalence of the NPS 10 Demands was key — showing that prison issues are not uniform, and are layered, complex, vary by region and facility.”


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