Kriston Capps is a staff writer for CityLab covering housing, architecture, and politics. He previously worked as a senior editor for Architect magazine.
Nationwide protests may follow in September.
Prisoners at seven different state prisons across Texas planned a work strike this week, in what may be the broadest prison action since the California state prison hunger strikes in 2013. The inmates reportedly refused to leave their cells, prompting seven prisons to put their facilities on lock down, according to the The Austin Chronicle.
(UPDATE 4/9: A public-information officer for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice confirmed that four units were placed on lockdown but said that the situation was unrelated to any work stoppage. Other units were placed on lockdown prior to April 4. The officer said that the department had not received reports of any offenders refusing to work.)
The striking inmates are affiliated with the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee. An unsigned letter, dated February 2016 and posted on the IWOC website, discusses a plan to create an “inter-state work stoppage” to protest labor and incarceration conditions across state prisons.
The goal is unionization for Texas prison workers, more or less.
According to the IWOC, the problem in Texas is less the hard work and more the meaningless reward. The protesters say that prison labor does not contribute toward their parole considerations, a major gripe. Compensation in prison—ranging from little in most states to nothing in Texas—doesn’t add up to enough to defray the $100 copays associated with inmates' medical expenses. And then there are the persistent Texas prison complaints: namely, the deadly heat.
Some of the anonymous Texas prisoners’ claims have a direct bearing on the larger economy in Texas. The five-page IWOC letter argues that unpaid prison labor is massively rewarding to Texas Correctional Industries, a department of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, at the expense of Texans. Not just incarcerated Texans, but job-seeking Texans outside the prison system.
“Sixty percent of the 180,000 prisoners work. That’s about 100,000 jobs,” the IWOC letter claims. “Texans should be demanding that the state give those jobs to citizens. Those 100,000 new jobs would alleviate the [state] unemployment rate.
Products manufactured in prison factories run by Texas Correctional Industries, which was authorized by the state’s 1963 Prison-Made Goods Act, run the gamut: “mattresses, shoes, garments, brooms, license plates, printed materials, janitorial supplies, soaps, detergents, furniture, textile, and steel products,” according to the department website. TCI sells to a variety of government and public entities, but not to private buyers or individuals. That’s not the case in every state: Last September, Whole Foods stopped selling prison-farmed tilapia, trout, and goat cheese, procured through Colorado Correctional Industries.
As Alice Speri notes for The Intercept, prison workers receive no benefits: no disability compensation, no Social Security accruals, no overtime pay. The Prison Policy Initiative, a nonprofit and nonpartisan research institution, describes the $2 billion annual prison industrial industry as slavery.
According to the IWOC site, the Texas strike calls for five specific fixes:
- Meaningful work time: Incarcerated laborers should be entitled to a “presumptive parole system” in recognition of their work, unless there is good reason to deny them parole.
- Repeal of the $100 medical copay: Anyone with any first-hand knowledge of the healthcare system will understand this complaint.
- Right to an attorney on habeas corpus: This would give prisoners the right to consultation with a criminal defense lawyer about asking the court for a writ of habeas corpus—essentially, an investigation of the circumstances surrounding an inmate’s arrest (not the charges brought against him or her).
- Creation of an oversight committee for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice: The Texas legislature has in fact proposed this change but never passed a bill to this effect. Inmates would like to see an oversight committee with the authority to perform walk-in inspections without giving any notice (like a “secret shopper” program).
- Humane living conditions: In Texas, this means nutritious meals, sufficient healthcare, limited reliance on solitary confinement, and above all, air conditioning during the summer.
On April 9, IWOC aims to host all-day solidarity demonstrations across the country. The Texas prison strikes follow similar strikes in Georgia in 2010, in California in 2013, and in Alabama in 2014. These actions sometimes get results: Hunger strikes in California precipitated an end to the practice of indefinite solitary confinement in January of this year.
The nation may see a much broader push for the recognition of prison labor later this year. Inmates from Ohio, Alabama, Virginia, and Mississippi are calling for a nationwide prison work stoppage on September 9.
“Our protest against prison slavery is a protest against the school-to-prison pipeline, a protest against police terror, a protest against post-release controls,” reads an anonymous pamphlet on the nationwide prison strike. “When we remove the economic motive and grease of our forced labor form the U.S. prison system, the entire structure of courts and police, of control and slave-catching must shift to accommodate us as humans, rather than slaves.”
This post has been updated.