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Incarcerated workers around the country, some of whom make as little as $1 an hour, are in the middle of a multi-week strike demanding improved conditions.
The strike was called in solidarity with seven inmates who died in a South Carolina prison in April after guards and officials waited hours to intervene in a riot that advocates say was sparked by overcrowding and miserable conditions.
“Modern Slavery” When the 13th amendment was written abolishing forced servitude, a provision was left in allowing the use of the incarcerated for free labor. Until 1980 prisoners in Texas picked cotton for no pay. Today’s protesters say the current work system amounts to “modern day slavery,” and the movement echoes a similar strike in 2016 involving 20,000 inmates across 24 prisons.
Some 800,000 U.S. prisoners are assigned to work each day. But with no bargaining power and no requirement for a living wage, prisoners in Louisiana make as little as 4 cents per hour. Inmates in California made $1 an hour helping fight the state’s record wildfires this year, but due to regulations barring ex-convicts from emergency medical technician licenses (required to be a full-fledged firefighter), the training will not translate to a job after release.
So, what do they want? A chance at real rehabilitation (and a life after release), with a few human rights thrown in as well. Spread across at least 17 prisons nationwide, the striking inmates have 10 demands, including pay at the prevailing wage, improved conditions, reductions in overcrowding, abolishment of life-without-parole sentencing, and voting rights and Pell Grants for the incarcerated.
“The truth is that, in our era of mass incarceration, the rehabilitative ideal has slipped dramatically,” Alex Lichtenstein, an Indiana University professor and labor historian told Pacific Standard. “If you were really going to rehabilitate people, you would also pay them a decent wage, which would allow them perhaps to accumulate some savings, so that when they left prison, they wouldn’t just have a bus ticket and $20.”
Any ideas? In California, one program is teaching young offenders how to code; businesses are learning the benefits of so-called “open hiring;” and some venture capital funds are seeing the benefits of investing in those who were once behind bars.