Inmates holding a fire line during a burn out operation in Big Sur, California, December 2013.
Inmates holding a fire line during a burn out operation in Big Sur, California, December 2013. Michael Fiala/Reuters

In a nationwide prison strike, the U.S.’s incarcerated population is demanding better wages and an end to “slave labor.”

When fire leapt up the walls of Mendocino houses, a team of prisoners from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation fended it off. When a blizzard turned Boston into a blanket of impenetrable snow in 2015, a squad of prisoners from the Suffolk County jail shoveled it. When a historic African-American cemetery in Baltimore fell into disrepair, it was inmates nearing release from the Maryland state prison system that rescued it. In cities across the country, it’s the incarcerated who are doing some of the invisible labor of keeping them running, often for little or no pay.

Prisoners are fed up, and rising up. Last week, prisoners launched a nationwide prison strike, building from momentum that started in April after guards avoided intervening in a riot in a South Carolina prison that resulted in the deaths of seven inmates. From August 21 to September 9, incarcerated people in county jails and federal prisons across the country are engaging in non-violent civic disobedience, and refusing to show up to their work stations. In Takoma, Washington; Sacramento, California; Toledo, Ohio; and Wabash Valley, Indiana, prisoners are on hunger strike.

Labor issues are far from the only things they’re organizing around. Their ten policy demands concern improving prison conditions, reducing the number of incarcerated Americans, giving prisoners the right to vote, and stopping the cycle of racism in the criminal justice system that put people behind bars in the first place.

But key to their demands is an end to the “slave labor” they’ve been conscripted into, both within prisons as cooks and janitors, and in communities. Demand number two reads: “An immediate end to prison slavery. All persons imprisoned in any place of detention under United States jurisdiction must be paid the prevailing wage in their state or territory for their labor.”

While “salaries” vary by state and jurisdiction, the average maximum daily wage for prisoners working non-industry jobs is $3.45, according to the Prison Policy Initiative, a rate that’s been falling since 2001. In Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, and Texas, prisoners are traditionally paid nothing at all for regular prison jobs. These wages are legal because of a clause of the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery, but explicitly allowed those convicted of a crime to be forced to work for free.

Almost half of the firefighters keeping wildfire at bay in California are incarcerated, paid $2 a day with an additional $1 per hour; the other non-incarcerated half are paid $22-$34 an hour for their efforts. Unionized snow shovelers in Boston are paid $30 an hour, while incarcerated laborers get less than $1. During 2015’s blizzard, officials boasted that prison labor would save the city a quarter of a million dollars. In Maryland, more than 110 inmate crews work on state labor projects, according to the Baltimore Sun. South Baltimore’s Mount Auburn cemetery reclamation project alone employed 40 prisoners, over the course of four years.

About 900,000 of the 2.4 million-strong prison population works, whether inside or outside of prisons, and many of the positions are highly sought after. Only certain low-offense and near-release prisoners could earn a spot on the cemetery clean-up crew, for example. Gary Maynard, then-secretary for Maryland's Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, hired prisoners for oyster planting; retainer wall building; and forest restoration, too, calling the program an important example of “restorative justice.”

Some prisoners agree. “My prison job made me feel like I was fulfilling my existential duty to society: I was contributing,” wrote Chandra Bozelko, a formerly incarcerated woman, in the LA Times. “Work is more than a wage, it's an expression of humanity, and that is especially true in prison. To even consider ridding our prisons of inmate work assignments is dehumanizing to the thousands of firefighters who are risking their lives in California.” For her and others, using time productively is good for morale, a break from the monotony of prison, and a way to earn money to use once they’re out. Officials say no prisoner is forced to take a job as a firefighter or trash picker.

But the question of whether prisoners truly have the autonomy to “choose” to work is a complicated one within an incarceral system. “There’s very little in prison that’s truly voluntary,” said David Fathi, the director of the ACLU’s National Prison Project. “It is particularly important that, for the prisoners who choose to work—whether it’s inside or outside the prison facility—they’re making a free, un-coerced and fully informed choice.”

The choice in jobs offered to inmates outside prison compounds are limited in scope. Sometimes, they’re invisible and tedious: Like sewing lingerie for Victoria’s Secret, as was portrayed in an Orange is the New Black episode pulled from history. Often, they’re backbreaking or dangerous. Two prisoners died in the California blazes this year.

And prisoners aren’t protected from labor exploitation in the same ways other workers are. Their employers aren’t subject to Occupational Safety and Health regulations; prisoners don’t have workers’ compensation; and they’re not allowed to strike, in the traditional sense of the word. The Supreme Court prohibits them from unionizing. As Whitney Benns wrote in The Atlantic, prison workers are not explicitly exempted from things like the Fair Labor Standards Act. But it’s hard for them to use these acts in gaining legal recourse:

[I]n the cases where incarcerated workers have sued their prison-employers to enforce minimum wage laws or the FLSA, courts have ruled that the relationship between the penitentiary and the inmate worker is not primarily economic; thus, the worker is not protected under the statutes. By judging the relationship between prisons and incarcerated workers to be of a primarily social or penological nature, the courts have placed wage and working condition protections out of reach for incarcerated workers.

The lack of protection poses a serious problem for the prison laborers themselves, but also passes along negative externalities to the un-jailed workforce. “When you have this captive workforce that can’t strike, that’s not protected by the laws that other workers are protected by, there’s an incentive to use prison labor instead of outside workers,” said Fathi. “Unions have expressed this fear for years: In a country with the world’s largest prison population, there’s a danger that prison labor could undercut the bargaining position of free labor.” If governments or businesses can hire prisoners to do the same job for a fraction of the price—and a fraction of the trouble—why wouldn’t they?

There’s also the risk that America’s incarceration policy will be distorted by the desire to maintain or increase the pool of prisoners; that access to cheap, easy labor will be used as a justification for keeping people behind bars. In some instances, it already has. When the federal government ordered California to release more than 100,000 prisoners in 2013 due to overcrowding, lawyers for Attorney General Kamala Harris’s office argued that they couldn’t let the prisoners out, because who, then, would they convince to fight the fires? (Harris told Buzzfeed News at the time that she was “shocked” and “troubled” by those remarks, and quickly walked them back. Eligible prisoners were ultimately given reduced sentencing credits.)

“That was a clear articulation of this fear that unions and others have expressed,” said Fathi. “Let’s keep these people locked up not because public safety requires it, but because either the government or businesses have a financial interest in it.”

Correction: In a previous version of this story, Gary Maynard was identified as the current, rather than former secretary for Maryland’s DPSCS.

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