By Hannah Riley
On September 9th – which marked the 45th anniversary of the infamous Attica Prison uprising—prisoners across the country launched a new kind of protest: by the tens of thousands, they refused to show up for work. Since then, the strike has spread to at least 24 different states. Though there is not one unified list of demands, from state to state prisoners are calling for fair pay for their labor, humane living conditions, and increased access to educational programs.
The strike began in Alabama, a state whose prisons consistently rank among the most overcrowded and understaffed in the nation, according to a recent lawsuit filed by the Southern Poverty Law Center. Essentially powerless and voiceless behind bars, perhaps the only leverage possessed by inmates is the cheap (and sometimes free) labor they provide. According to Bureau of Justice statistics, roughly 600,000 inmates have daily jobs which help prisons to function smoothly (food preparation, custodial work, landscaping, library work, etc.) while an additional 60,000 inmates generated $472 million in sales last year through their participation in the Federal Prison’s Unicor program, where they manufacture items ranging from eyeglasses to furniture.
New England Innocence Project Board Member Dennis Maher knows more than he’d like to about prison labor. During the 19 years he spent wrongfully imprisoned, Dennis had a number of jobs. “My first job in the prison was making eyeglasses – I put in for it, and because I was a lifer, I got it,” he told me. “They prefer someone with a long sentence. I made 50 cents an hour, working about 6 hours a day, 5 days a week.” $15 a week, for 30 hours of labor. Working nearly full time for an entire year would net him only $720.
It’s perfectly legal for prisoners to be forced to work for no pay: the United States Constitution’s 13th Amendment still permits involuntary servitude, provided that it’s used as punishment for a crime. Mandatory work programs in federal prisons can pay up to a maximum of $1.15 per hour; state prisons average roughly 20 cents an hour. In Texas, Georgia, and Arkansas, prisoners are not paid at all.
To the extent that he was able, Dennis worked his way up the ladder, finally landing a job cooking for the prison staff. “When I finally ended up in a leadership position, working in the staff kitchen, my pay went up to $2 an hour. Then the DOC took over and it was reduced to $8 per day, then to just $5 a day. The DOC paid you what they paid you – doesn’t matter if you’re guilty or innocent. They don’t care what the inmates think. The prison system is a warehouse. Period.”
The most conservative estimate is that 2.5% of the prison population is wrongfully convicted – which means that up to 16,500 of the 660,000 inmates providing cheap or free labor are innocent of the crimes for which they are serving time.