On Sept. 9, prisoners around the country staged a coordinated strike to mark the 45th anniversary of the bloody uprising at Attica prison in New York. According to strike organizers, more than 24,000 inmates in at least 12 states did not show up for work that day, and protests are ongoing in a handful of places. In Alabama, where the national strike originated, corrections officers joined the strike by not showing up to work this weekend, officials confirmed.
But most information about the strike is nearly impossible to confirm. Just as organizers have incentive to make the strike seem as effective as possible, so corrections officials want to play down the action and its impact. Officials in Alabama, Michigan and Florida confirmed work stoppages on Sept. 9. Prison officials in other states—including Texas and South Carolina, where the Marshall Project has received accounts of striking inmates—deny that any work stoppage or strike has taken place.
With the strike apparently winding down, here’s a primer on what happened and why.
How did the strike begin?
The strike was organized at Holman prison in Alabama, with a group of inmates who call themselves the Free Alabama Movement. Alabama’s prisons are consistently the most overcrowded and understaffed in the nation, according to a sweeping lawsuit filed this summer by the Southern Poverty Law Center. One expert witness in the suit told of “dangerous conditions, systemic mistreatment…as well as a crass disregard for their basic human dignity.” Members of the prisoner group have organized strikes before, and said that earlier this year they began building a network of other prison groups with similar aims, like one in Georgia that held a strike in 2010. Using a system of contraband cell phones, and with help from family members and organizers on the outside, “we decided we would use our labor as our leverage,” said Robert Earl Council, an inmate at Holman. “These systems are only here because of the money they’re making. The money we produce.”
Tensions reached a boiling point during the strike’s second week, when a correctional officer was stabbed to death by an inmate during a dispute over food. This fight was not directly related to the strike, but it drove correctional officers—also at risk when prisons are overcrowded and understaffed—to begin striking too. Email messages to the Alabama Correctional Organization, a guards’ union, were not returned.
What are strikers’ demands?
Strike organizers say they decided against issuing a single, unified list of demands, and instead chose to let each state prisoner group issue their own. They vary from state to state, but generally demand fair pay for their work, humane living conditions, and better access to education and rehabilitation programs.
What happened during the strike?
The most common action was that inmates did not report for work. In one facility in Michigan, several hundred inmates staged a peaceful protest march in the yard, but after the march ended and the protesters returned to their units, chaos broke out, with several units being vandalized. In South Carolina, some inmates are organizing to stop paying the prison for goods and services like commissary items and phone calls. There were also reports of hunger strikes in several facilities.
The vast prison workforce
They’re not included in standard labor surveys or employment numbers, but at least half the nation’s 1.5 million prisoners have a job. Some states have a work requirement: any able-bodied prisoner must work or face disciplinary consequences. According to DATA1 from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, about 700,000 prisoners have daily jobs, helping to run a prison—mopping cellblock floors, mowing lawns, preparing and serving food. They act as GED tutors, they file papers in the chaplain’s office, and shelve books in the law library. A much smaller portion—an additional 60,000 inmates—participate in “correctional industries” programs designed to mimic real-world jobs; the federal prisons’ Unicor program, which had $472 million in net sales last year, is an example of these programs. An even smaller group (less than one percent of prisoners) work for free-world companies under the auspices of a federal program.