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The Largest Prison Strike in American History Is Happening Right Now

On the 45th anniversary of the Attica Prison uprising, inmates in 40 sites across 24 states are refusing to work.

David Duprey/AP

On Friday, the 45th anniversary of the Attica Prison uprising, inmates at 40 sites across 24 states are refusing to submit to what they say is involuntary servitude.

Inmates in the Free Alabama Movement called for the strike on April 1:

Slavery is alive and well in the prison system, but by the end of this year, it won’t be anymore. This is a call to end slavery in America. This call goes directly to the slaves themselves. We are not making demands or requests of our captors, we are calling ourselves to action. To every prisoner in every state and federal institution across this land, we call on you to stop being a slave, to let the crops rot in the plantation fields, to go on strike and cease reproducing the institutions of your confinement.

In response to the call, which has largely spread through social media, thousands of prisoners have taken action. In Florida, more than 400 inmates took part in a riot on Wednesday, damaging “nearly every dorm” in an uprising that that continued all night, according to The Miami Herald.

According to reports from inmates inside Holman Prison in Alabama, as of noon Friday, “all inmates at Holman Prison refused to report to their prison jobs without incident. With the rising of the sun came an eerie silence as the men at Holman laid on their racks reading or sleeping. Officers are performing all tasks.”

Holman Prison was the site of a riot that broke out in March, involving more than 100 inmates upset over overcrowding, abuse at the hands of guards, and a lack of food and medicine.

This year has seen a wave of prisoners organizing against forced labor in prisons, permitted by the 13th Amendment. Seven Texas state prisons faced strikes in April. And since May, there have been work strikes and hunger strikes in prisons in Mississippi, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Ohio, Nevada, Louisiana, Pennsylvania, and Alabama, according to The Nation.

Of the nation’s 2.4 million prisoners, about 900,000 work, according to Wired.
Most prisoners have no labor rights and work for only a few cents an hour—and sometimes for free, as in Texas. Major corporations including Walmart, Victoria’s Secret, and AT&T contract out work to prisoners.

“If our criminal justice system had to pay a fair wage for labor that inmates provide, it would collapse,” Alex Friedmann, the managing editor of Prison Legal News, told the American Prospect. “We could not afford to run our justice system without exploiting inmates.”

Many of the movement’s organizers say that this is precisely why they chose strikes to draw attention to the problems of mass incarceration. In a May interview with Democracy Now!, Kinetik Justice, the co-founder of the Free Alabama Movement and an inmate at Holman Prison, explained the tactic at length:

These strikes are our method for challenging mass incarceration. As we understand it, the prison system is a continuation of the slave system, and which in all entities is an economical system. Therefore, for the reform and changes that we’ve been fighting for in Alabama, we’ve tried petitioning through the courts. We’ve tried to get in touch with our legislators and so forth. And we haven’t had any recourse. Therefore, we understood that our incarceration was pretty much about our labor and the money that was being generated through the prison system, therefore we began organizing around our labor and used it as a means and a method in order to bring about reform in the Alabama prison system.

About the Author

  • George Joseph
    George Joseph is an editorial fellow at CityLab, originally from Denton, Texas. He covers schools, policing, and surveillance.