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On the website for Unicor, the newly renamed Federal Prison Industries — the 84-year-old government-run corporation that utilizes incarcerated people for labor — there’s a section called “Shopping.” There, you can benefit from the fruits of the company’s “Factories With Fences” program, which produces items manufactured by the 182,797 inmates of the nation’s federal prisons: socks, solar panels, goggles, shelving, license plates, office furniture. For $139, you can buy the Chrome Frame Matrix HD Chair for your office or home in ebony, wine, sapphire, or indigo, knowing it was made by prisoners who serve Unicor at dozens of facilities from Canaan, Pennsylvania, to Atwater, California. If you are looking for labor, prisoners can also be contracted for your company, for services ranging from manufacturing to call center duties. After all, it’s a fantastic deal: The pay rate for inmates ranges from 23 cents to $1.15 an hour. This, partners are told, offers companies “minimized overhead costs to help drive bottom-line improvements. (Seeing this bargain laid out in the crisp, airless language of convenience capitalism both elides the skin-crawling horror of incarceration and somehow underscores it.) Unicor has a capsule history of the federal U.S. prison labor program on its website, which notes that prison work programs originated in the United States with the nation’s founding in the 1700s, and that “despite periods of criticism from detractors, increasingly constrictive procurement laws, misinformation and stigma,” they have “endured.”
The latest “test” to prison labor comes not from outside detractors or procurement laws, but from within the prisons themselves. On August 21, a loosely connected network of incarcerated activists, led by the group Jailhouse Lawyers Speak, announced a nationwide prison strike. One of the ten demands released by the protesters is an end to prison slavery – a demand for a full and fair wage just noting it specifies as based on the prevailing wage in their state or territory for any labor performed while incarcerated.
The strike was inspired by a riot at the Lee Correctional Institution in Bishopville, South Carolina, on April 15, which left seven inmates — Corey Scott, Eddie Casey Gaskins, Raymond Angelo Scott, Damonte Rivera, Michael Milledge, Cornelius McClary, and Joshua Jenkins — dead. Prisoners stated that the surge of violence was due to inhumane living conditions, punitive sentences, and the prison warehousing rival gangs in the same units.
The date was set for August 21, the day Nat Turner’s slave revolt began in 1831. It’s meant to last until September 9, the anniversary of the Attica State Peniteniary uprising, a mass prisoner takeover of an upstate New York prison in 1971 that ultimately led to significant reforms in the New York carceral system.
“We are men! We are not beasts, and we do not intend to be beaten or driven as such,” said Attica inmate Elliot “L.D.” Barkley, in one of the first public statements made by the protesting prisoners in 1971. Barkley, the most visible face of the Attica uprising, was shot in the back and killed when authorities stormed the prison to quell the uprising, leaving thirty prisoners and ten prison guards dead.
The first demand of the 2018 strike echoes Barkley’s words across decades: It is a call for “immediate improvements to the conditions of prisons and prison policies that recognize the humanity of imprisoned men and women.” The rest are concretizations of this demand: that the label of “violent offender” should not result in anyone being barred from rehabilitation programs; that current and former prisoners regain their voting rights; an end to racist over-charging of black and brown people; and an end to the Prison Litigation Reform Act, which severely restricts the ability of prisoners to file federal lawsuits, among others.
The strike is as sprawling and difficult to track as America’s prison state itself, a system that encompasses some 2.3 million people. Its participants are largely anonymized by the activists who publicize their resistance, for fear of retaliation by prison authorities. By its very nature, it vexes publications, as the incarcerated individuals taking part are purposefully tucked out of sight and kept from communicating with the press. But reports have trickled out — particularly in activist-aligned outlets like Democracy Now! and It’s Going Down — of ICE detainees hunger-striking in Washington State; prison work stoppages in South Carolina; boycotts of commissaries in Florida; and more hunger strikers, in Colorado, North Carolina, Georgia, and California. Many groups of strikers have released local demands. These reports are smuggled out like the contraband they are, to whichever ears on the outside are willing to receive them.
At New Folsom Prison in California, 26-year-old Heriberto Garcia, in the tenth year of a fifteen-years-to-life sentence for voluntary manslaughter, recorded himself refusing food in his cell and smuggled the video to a revolutionary press in Chicago, which posted the video to Twitter. “I was introduced to the gang life at the age of 11. I ended incarcerated at the age of 16 and have been down ever since,” he wrote to correspondents at True Leap Press last year. “I’m still evolving with the struggle and will continue as long as I’m alive.”
Sympathizers on the outside have staged a variety of actions to show solidarity to incarcerated strikers. In Minneapolis, protesters set off fireworks outside one of the city’s juvenile detention centers, accompanied by music by the anarchist marching band Unlawful Assembly. In Brooklyn, marchers banged drums while Metropolitan Detention Center inmates flashed contraband cellphones through narrow windows; in other states, activists have participated in banner drops, created solidarity graffiti, and clashed with police in marches.
Inside prison walls, incarcerated individuals who engage in active resistance must contend with a system designed to impose punishment and tighten the vice of privation. Activists have reported retaliatory solitary confinement, transfers, and the deprivation of clean clothes and showers for prisoners who have helped to organize hunger strikes and work stoppages. In America’s prisons — the gray archipelago of warehoused men and women tucked in towns, behind great casements of cement — a great shadow economy moves forward. Every consumer annoyance in the outside world — phone-company fees, health insurance premiums — has a parallel that exists in the prison economy, only contractors are free to exploit a captive audience. Prisoners stripped of their liberty have to further contend with exorbitant fees for outside phone calls; charges for medical care; erratic or extortionate prices in prison commissaries; and perhaps most grotesquely, in 43 states, “room and board fees” for incarceration itself.
Imprisoned men and women are the drivers of this multibillion-dollar shadow economy: its laborers and its prey. The work stoppages and hunger strikes are the weapons of those from whom all others have been stripped. The hands that assemble thousands of chairs and tables and solar panels, that sew socks and table linens, that print and bind books for pennies, have no recourse beyond stilling themselves from that work, in the face of fearful punishment. Over the past decades, prisoners have packaged holiday coffees for Starbucks, stitched lingerie for Victoria’s Secret, and answered calls for AT&T, and farmed tilapia for Whole Foods, among dozens of other blue-chip brands. The small luxuries — cheese, chocolate, soap — of the commissary are all they have to boycott, and those who can are doing so. Hunger itself is the last offensive of the incarcerated person, when the only freedom left for a body is the freedom to devour itself. It’s the freedom once expressed by the poet Marina Tsvetaeva, who wrote, after her husband was shot and her daughter imprisoned by Stalin:
In this madhouse of the inhuman
I refuse to live. With the wolves of the marketplace
I refuse to be. I refuse to swim
with the sharks, on a current of human spines.
In America, our gulags are run not just to punish, but for private companies’ profit, for the sake of the smooth and ugly Chrome Frame Matrix HD Office Chair and its buyers, made in prison. The act of striking is a rebuke not just of individual prison conditions, but of the grinding, predatory march of the prison economy itself. America is punitive — we have the largest number of incarcerated individuals in the world — and it is harsh to those it punishes. It is not a coincidence that those subject to the abysmal conditions of the carceral state are disproportionately racial minorities. Black Americans are incarcerated at five times the rate of whites across the country, and at ten times the rate of whites in some states. Modern prison slavery, as criminal-justice reform advocates have pointed out again and again, is an extension of our nation’s original sin, the forced labor of black bodies. The acts of defiance smuggled to our eyes and ears from within the system are necessarily small, necessarily isolated from one another, necessarily borne of the cramped and violent framework in which they are contained. It is on us to amplify them to their appropriate enormity, to let the fire of that fierce, noble hunger rise in us, and turn insatiably to justice.