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America’s prisoners are going on strike in at least 17 states

America’s prisoners are going on strike.

The demonstrations are planned to take place from August 21 to September 9, which marks the anniversary of the bloody uprising at the Attica Correctional Facility in New York. During this time, inmates across the US plan to refuse to work and, in some cases, refuse to eat to draw attention to poor prison conditions and what many view as exploitative labor practices in American correctional facilities.

“Prisoners want to be valued as contributors to our society,” Amani Sawari, a spokesperson for the protests, told me. “Every single field and industry is affected on some level by prisons, from our license plates to the fast food that we eat to the stores that we shop at. So we really need to recognize how we are supporting the prison industrial complex through the dollars that we spend.”

Prison labor issues recently received attention in California, where inmates have been voluntarily recruited to fight the state’s record wildfires — for the paltry pay of just $1 an hour plus $2 per day. But the practice of using prison inmates for cheap or free labor is fairly widespread in the US, due to an exemption in the 13th Amendment, which abolished chattel slavery but allows involuntary servitude as part of a punishment for a crime.

For Sawari and the inmates participating in the protests, the sometimes forced labor and poor pay is effectively “modern slavery.” That, along with poor prison conditions that inmates blame for a deadly South Carolina prison riot earlier this year, have led to protests.

For prisons, though, fixing the problems raised by the demonstrations will require money — something that cash-strapped state governments may not be willing to put up. That raises real questions about whether the inmates’ demands can or will be heard. The demonstrations come two years after what was then the largest prison strike in US history, with protests breaking out in at least 12 states in 2016. The new demonstrations could end up even larger than those previous protests.

There’s no hard estimate for how many inmates and prisons are taking part in the protests, as organizers continue to recruit more and more inmates and word of mouth spreads. But demonstrations are expected across at least 17 states. The inmates will take part in work strikes, hunger strikes, and sit-ins. They are also calling for boycotts against agencies and companies that benefit from prisons and prison labor. “The main leverage that an inmate has is their own body,” Sawari said. “If they choose not to go to work and just sit in in the main area or the eating area, and all the prisoners choose to sit there and not go to the kitchen for lunchtime or dinnertime, if they choose not to clean or do the yardwork, this is the leverage that they have. Prisons cannot run without prisoners’ work.”

While 2016’s protests were largely planned for just September 9 (then the 45th anniversary of the Attica uprising), they ended up taking part over weeks or months as prison officials tried to tamp down the demonstrations and mitigate the effects of the protests. This year, the protests are spread out over three weeks to make it more difficult for prison officials to crack down.

The inmates have outlined 10 national demands. They include “immediate improvements to the conditions of prisons” and “an immediate end to prison slavery.” They also target federal laws that boosted mass incarceration and have made it harder for inmates to sue officials for potential rights violations. And they call for an end to racial disparities in the criminal justice system and an increase to rehabilitation programs in prisons

The demands are on top of specific local and regional asks that prisoners are making. For example, Sawari said, in South Carolina they’re also focused on getting prisoners the right to vote — and, of course, improving conditions in the state that helped inspire this year’s protests. One reason for this year’s demonstrations is the prison riot at Lee Correctional Institution in April, which was described as a “mass casualty” event by state officials. “After that violent incident happened, South Carolina prisoners and the jailhouse lawyers group out of Lee County came out with the strike demands and really wanted to do something to draw attention to the dehumanizing environment of prisons in general,” Sawari said.

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