Triggered by a riot at a correctional institution last April, in which seven inmates died while guards waited hours before intervening, the strike comes as a reaction against the inhumane conditions faced by incarcerated men and women.
The US has by far the largest imprisoned population in the world with 2.3 million inmates, who are locked down in overcrowded, dilapidated institutions and harmed every day due to conditions of confinement. Over 800,000 of those prisoners are forced to work, sometimes for hourly wages as low as 4 cents per hour. The abolition of this modern form of slavery is one of the key demands of the strike. Other demands include humane living conditions, access to rehabilitation, as well as putting an end to the targeting of black and brown people, life without parole sentences and the disenfranchisement of prisoners. Striking inmates—and especially key organizers—face heavy retaliation, such as being placed in isolation cells. In spite of this, not only are they refusing to work, but some will also go on hunger strikes, hold sit-in protests, and boycott commissaries.
In light of these events, we are republishing an article from 2014 highlighting the roots of prison slavery and the American prison complex. We also recommend this 2017 article which elaborates on the tradition of slave and prison strikes in the US.
America is number one . . . in its prison population. In the “land of the free,” several million humans languish in cages in the name of law and order. Since its exponential growth in the past four decades, there is not another nation on this planet that comes near America’s incarceration rate. Instead of being given the help they need most, the workers and youth who are hardest hit by the poverty, unemployment, and social decay endemic to capitalism are brutalized by the police and traumatized by hellish prison conditions until they no longer become a problem to the system. Furthermore the expansion of the prison system is used as a battering ram by the bosses against any resistance from an already battered working class; it comes hand in hand with a police force of titanic proportions and a dangerously draconian set of laws.
The prison is an unforgiving weapon of the capitalist state against the masses. The emancipation of the working class can only be realized with abolition of that state. But first, we must set ourselves to the task of studying and understanding the system so that one day we may properly dismantle it.
The bosses and politicians argue that the prison system is necessary to “fight crime”. But what is crime and how does the capitalist state fight it?
A crime occurs when a law is broken. In the US, like every other capitalist nation, our laws are written by a government of the rich, for the rich. What the government defines as crime and how it responds to crime is rooted in the capitalists’ class interests.
The ruling class criminalizes anything that might provoke social unrest, endanger property relations, or politically challenge the status quo. This makes for a large variety for illegal acts, and the state spends considerable resources prosecuting everything from shoplifting to homicide to drug use.
But crime, like any social behavior, owes itself to the system it’s within. If people are starved they will turn to cannibalism. In the same way, material need provokes the desperate to violence, robbery, and the black market. For many, life in capitalism is misery without end and they turn to drugs for an escape. And no one should be surprised when capitalism, a system of exploitation and systematic violence, is accompanied by a culture of savagery and sadism. A fetish of violence grips our society. A fraction of the working class is pushed to a life of criminality.
Many behaviors considered criminal by the capitalist state would also be transgressive under socialism. Domestic violence and terrorism are two obvious examples. But socialism would address these problems with entirely different methods, striking at the source instead of protecting it. And instead of leaving criminals to rot in cages, a society truly dictated by the will of the masses would set upon rehabilitating those unable to immediately rejoin society.
If we are serious about ending violence, robbery, addiction, and so on, we must start by providing for the needs of everyone, ending disease, war, and exploitation, and creating an alternative and truly human set of social conditions for the millions of Americans who are lost to criminality in a tidal wave of community decay and poverty. We must uproot crime by its material basis. This is outside the abilities of capitalism because the material basis of modern crime is capitalism.
Since it is the root of the problem, capitalism was never able to provide a solution for crime. From the infancy of nascent capitalism, this was a major problem for society. Nevertheless, they have always found a way to profit from it. European capitalism advanced from the death agony of feudalism through the enforced transformation of the peasant masses and feudal retinues into an industrial working class. Consequently, pauperism, drunkenness, and petty thievery overran parts of both rural and urban areas. Traditionally, corporal punishment, executions, fines, enslavement, forced labor, and deportations were all that the feudal state needed to keep order, but the old methods crumbled under the new system’s avalanche of crime. This situation was a menace for the rising and newly empowered capitalist class, which craved law and order to protect its wealth and property.
In response, the British state began locking up troublesome Londoners in workhouses. By forcing manual labor on previously unemployable elements, hordes of alcoholics and petty criminals were transformed into an exploitable labor force. This model was hailed as a success and replicated around the increasingly capitalist world.
However, this model was still a mere embryo of the future prison system. It had not yet been developed enough to be responsible for the bulk of society’s criminals; the rest were disciplined by the old methods. It was in the New World, the frontier of world capitalism, that this embryo would mature into the penal system we know today. Starting in Pennsylvania, convicts weren’t executed, mutilated, or deported, but locked in cells under guarded supervision and assigned industrial labor. Social reformers hailed this as a great invention and exported it back to the Old World. The institution soon became a hallmark of capitalism.
With criminals now processed into hyperexploitable labor, convicts became a quick commodity on the free market. The practice of “convict-leasing” became a popular business model in the industrial North, but it was initially incompatible with the Old South. As long as chattel slavery existed, it would be redundant to incarcerate and work forced laborers. Meanwhile, whites who would normally be unemployable due to drunkenness and lack of discipline were valued by the slaveocracy to watch over slaves. Convict-leasing only spread to the South through the Civil War and Reconstruction, when Sherman’s army razed the slaveocracy’s society to the ground and Radical Republicanism rebuilt the South in the North’s image. Once introduced to the South, convict-leasing became a way for the old slaveocracy to reclaim its power, and it spread like a contagion, becoming a cornerstone in the Jim Crow South for the next half century. Old plantations were combined with prisoner of war camps to become factory- and farm-prisons, as law enforcement ran around arresting “freedmen” for spurious crimes. The Louisiana State Penitentiary is a classic example of this process. It was originally a slave plantation, but after the defeat of the Confederate army, the owner was forced to switch from chattel slavery for convict-leasing. In 1901 it became a state prison. Today it is the largest maximum security prison in the nation.
The infectious expansion of prison labor devastated American workers. As proletarians in the capitalist system, our labor power is subject to the pressure of supply and demand. On the capitalist market, our labor power is a commodity to be bought by capital at the price of wages. When a section of the working class can be hyperexploited with little to no wages and under horrific conditions, we lose our bargaining power with the bosses, and our wages, employment, and working conditions slide downwards. Why should the bosses hire a free worker at a union wage when a large workload at a near-zero wage can be forced on convicts? It became common practice for companies to fire free workers and lease convicts to replace them. And if the remaining free workers ever organized around demands for better pay and conditions, convicts were often brought in as unwilling scabs.
This was the situation facing American workers in the late 19th century. In response, labor organizations like the Knights of Labor and later, the American Federation of Labor stepped to the vanguard of a new abolitionist movement. At the same time, convicts were fighting back in a wave of prison strikes and revolts. Free workers organized protest strikes in solidarity, and in places like Coal Creek, Tennessee, the working class moved in an insurrectionary direction. In 1891, local mine owners provoked an armed confrontation when they attempted to replace organized mine workers with leased convicts. Enraged, the miners marched on the company buildings and prison stockades, burned them to the ground, and freed the prisoners. A two-year period of military conflict of the workers and convicts against the bosses and state followed. Fearful of more worker uprisings, the government of Tennessee would become one of the first Southern states to end convict-leasing three years later.
Under pressure from a militant and class-conscious workers’ movement, states across America quietly ended their convict-leasing programs one by one. By the early 20th century, prisoner labor was used exclusively for state projects. No longer was free labor forced to compete with convict-leasing. One of the greatest achievements of the American working class had been won.
However, despite this immense gain conquered by the class struggle, the system that produced convict-leasing survived. And without the abolition of the capitalist system, every concession the working class wins can later be taken away by the bosses. Since capitalism and its prison institution, the material basis of convict-leasing, was allowed to continue, convict-leasing became a latent disease, not showing any symptoms but still there under the surface ready to reemerge at a moment of weakness.
Entering the 1970s, the American ruling class was panicked. They had just barely survived a decade of political turmoil, the economy was stagnating, crime was soaring, and industrial jobs were being whisked out of the nation by outsourcing. Their response was the construction of one of the most invasive and repressive police forces the world had seen. The “War on Drugs” was declared and prison populations swelled with nonviolent offenders. Between 1970 and 2000, the number of Americans incarcerated jumped six times.
In the context of the postwar boom, the leadership of traditional American workers’ organizations had abandoned the class struggle for class collaboration. The combination of this lull in the class struggle and an exponential leap in America’s prison population provided the perfect conditions for convict-leasing to return. After biding its time for over half a century, convict-leasing resurfaced at a level never seen before.
In 1979, Congress passed the Prison Industries Enhancement Certification Program (PIE), reopening the doorway for private corporations to hire convict labor. In the mid-90s, members of the American Legislative Exchange Council, a right-wing coalition of state legislators that receives major funding from the private prison corporations, began introducing state laws like the Prison Industries Act that expanded the PIE program. By the next two decades, most states in the US had passed these laws.
The forces behind these laws were exploiting a captive labor force that they themselves had created years before. Through ALEC and other political forces, the bosses had pushed legislation like the draconian “Three-Strikes” and “Truth in Sentencing” laws to inflate the prison population.
This was not merely the program of the bourgeois right wing. Liberal dignitaries Bill Clinton and Joe Biden spearheaded the outrageous 1994 Omnibus Crime Bill, which increased police and prison funding by tens of billions of dollars, allowed children as young as thirteen to be tried as adults, and expanded a version of the Three-Strikes rule nationally. On the question of locking up millions of Americans for nonviolent offenses, both parties of the ruling class reached a gentlemanly bipartisanship.
As the number of incarcerated Americans soared, so did the profits of private prison corporations like the Corrections Corporation of America and the GEO Group, providing more lobbying money to groups like ALEC and increasing the political power of the prison industry. Through this process, even though private prison corporations are reportedly responsible for less than 10% of American prisoners, they become a decisive player in the expansion of the prison system.
Today those corporations are raking in billions in revenue. Like the leap in incarceration rates and the PIE program, the private prison industry began to appear in the 1970s, a decade characterized by the loss of industrial jobs, rising unemployment and prices, and stagnant wages. The budgets of state governments were in trouble and in many states, there was a crisis of prison overcrowding due to skyrocketing incarceration rates.
In response, states like Louisiana began to encourage sheriffs to invest individually in new, private prisons for future profits from state contracts and prison labor. By the 80s, and continuing into the 90s, large scale corporations began to dominate the industry, and entering the 20th century, over a hundred thousand Americans were incarcerated in private prisons.
Meanwhile, household brands like Microsoft, Victoria’s Secret, IBM, Nordstrom, Motorola, Dell and many more have adopted an interesting business model: modern day convict-leasing. In prisons across the nation, inmates wake up, leave their cells, and go to work for major corporations. They sew textile products, process meat, package Starbucks coffee, work in call centers, produce military weapons, work on industrial farms, and more.
According to the Federal Bureau of Prisons:
Sentenced inmates are required to work if they are medically able. Institution work assignments include employment in areas like food service or the warehouse, or work as an inmate orderly, plumber, painter, or groundskeeper. Inmates earn 12¢ to 40¢ per hour for these work assignments.
Approximately 16% of work-eligible inmates work in Federal Prison Industries (FPI) factories. They gain marketable job skills while working in factory operations, such as metals, furniture, electronics, textiles, and graphic arts. FPI work assignments pay from 23¢ to $1.15 per hour.
The FPI, commonly known as Unicor, offers lower wages than the private corporations, but not by much. And just as atrocious as the wages are the conditions. One prisoner assigned to agricultural labor describes her experience on the job:
They wake us up between 2:30 and three AM and KICK US OUT of our housing unit by 3:30AM. We get fed at four AM. Our work supervisors show up between 5AM and 8AM. Then it’s an hour to a one and a half hour drive to the job site. Then we work eight hours regardless of conditions . . . We work in the fields hoeing weeds and thinning plants . . . Currently we are forced to work in the blazing sun for eight hours. We run out of water several times a day. We ran out of sunscreen several times a week. They don’t check medical backgrounds or ages before they pull women for these jobs. Many of us cannot do it! If we stop working and sit on the bus or even just take an unauthorized break we get a MAJOR ticket which takes away our ‘good time’!!!
There lurks the profit motive for the runaway expansion of prisons: a captive workforce under the martial law of guards, unable to organize for better conditions, requiring only the living conditions of livestock, and wages that can be counted in pennies.
Dialectically, prison profiteering is both the cause and effect of mass incarceration. Capitalism’s contradictions spawned the prison system, the prison system inspired capitalist interests, and capitalist interests transformed it into a profitable industry. The prison system, now a lucrative investment opportunity for Fortune 500 corporations, has been swollen to proportions the world has never seen to expand a new source of profit.
The human cost is devastating. The United States of America has the largest incarceration rate, accounting for 25%of the global prisoners while having only 5% of the world’s population. Millions of Americans are abandoned in overcrowded cells and animal living conditions by a society that no longer has a place for them.
As already explained, the modern prison is a function of capitalism, and capitalism is unable to address the question of crime. Instead of being a solution, mass incarceration is just another twist in the tangled spiral of capitalism’s problems.
The expansion and maintenance of the prison system necessitates an expansion and maintenance of an oppressive state apparatus. After half a century of “law-and-order” politics, the American police force is one of the largest militarized bodies in the world and claims tens of billions of dollars in taxpayer money. But in its perennial “War on Drugs,” law enforcement seems nowhere close to the defeat of “Drugs.” And like any other war, many American working-class and poor neighborhoods have become war zones, the battlegrounds of gang warfare, what is practically police martial law, and an all-crushing siege of economic hopelessness and social terror. Sections of Detroit resemble World War II Europe. Chicago has earned the nickname “Chiraq” for its murder epidemic. And in New York, especially, law enforcement has become indistinguishable from a military occupation in many neighborhoods, right down to its “Stop and Frisk” checkpoints.
But what has all of this been able to accomplish? The United States of America, the world capitalist superpower, has the highest incarceration rate in the world, making nations that Washington sanctions for “humanitarian” and “democratic” reasons look like relatively liberal places. But prisons just become breeding grounds for more crime. Unsurprisingly, concentrating a large proportion of the nation’s drug dealers and violent offenders makes for a particularly drug-infested and violent place. Far from creating an environment that discourages criminality, these hellholes ruin lives and drive people deeper and deeper down the spiral of violence and addiction.
The prison is a place of psychological and physical trauma. Prison rape is so common that is has become an open joke in American culture. Especially victimized are trans and homosexual prisoners, whose victimhood is almost an inevitability once behind bars. The contradictions of race and gang violence become particularly sharp in prison, and the presence of prisoner gangs bearing Nazi imagery is well-known. Many prison guards contribute to all of this wretchedness with a regime of bullying, arbitrary cruelty, and tactics of psychological and physical torture such as solitary confinement. Inmates are stripped of their bodily autonomy and dignity, put in a cage of barbarity and torture, and are expected to return to society as well-socialized, law-abiding citizens. Instead of correcting criminality, the prison system reinforces it.
The flaws of the prison system go deeper than the prison itself. The “justice” system that convicts and incarcerates people does so on an unjust basis, a basis of systematic bigotry and class divide. From the old slave codes and the Indian scalp bounties, the American justice system, just like American capitalism, has been a fundamentally racist institution. So it should surprise no one that black Americans are incarcerated at nearly six times the rate of whites, and although black and Latino Americans comprise only a quarter of the total US population, they make up 58% of the American prison population. While nonwhite and white Americans are just as likely to use drugs, a massive disparity exists between nonwhite and white Americans arrested, convicted, and jailed for drug offenses. In a nation where random, senseless police violence brutalizes black and Latino working class neighborhoods, it seems that the very act of being nonwhite in America is a criminal offense. The extrajudicial executions of Eric Garner, Mike Brown, Trayvon Martin, Kimani Gray, Derek Lopez, Amadou Diallo, Victor Steen, and on and on prove an intolerable reality: law enforcement (and self-appointed vigilantes) can kill minority children and get away scot-free afterwards. Capitalism declares all this a “justice” system with dark irony.
Capitalism’s class prejudice underlies all of this. The bosses and bankers can rob and defraud the nation to economic ruin and get a multi-billion dollar bailout afterwards. But if someone is poor and working class and pushed to crime by desperation, it’s off to jail with you. America is a bourgeois democracy, where democratic rights and justice exist for the highest bidder. But those left penniless by rent, interest, and profit are out of luck.
Everywhere it is clear: the prison system is a form of class oppression against workers. The question of the day should be: how can we fight it?
The struggle must be fought with the same war strategy that defeated it before: the organization, education, and mobilization of the American working class. A capitalist crisis with no end in sight will intensify the simmering American class struggle to a searing white heat, and workers and youth around the country will look defiantly at all of the towering institutions of capitalism. Beneath the surface of our society, tectonic plates are shoving into each other and an explosion of seismic proportions is being prepared. In the next period, the revolutionary wildfire in Venezuela, Greece, Egypt, Turkey, Brazil, and on and on will soon leap onto American streets and ignite a struggle for the overthrow of the system.
A warning tremor of labor strikes in places like Chicago schools, New York fast food restaurants, and Walmart superstores is already upon us. Similar revolts are being seen in American prisons, like the prison hunger and labor strikes in California (2011 and 2013) and in Georgia (December 2010). The massive outpouring of protest at the Mike Brown and Eric Garner grand jury decisions is another important indication of what’s to come.
All of these movements represent the same struggle: the class struggle of workers against the oppression and exploitation of the capitalist system. A victory for incarcerated workers is a victory for free workers. If a prison strike won an increase in wages for prisoners, the larger working class would have greater leverage in the fight for better pay. If a mass movement forces the capitalist state to give concessions to the living and work conditions of prisoners, abusive living and work conditions for the masses will become less acceptable everywhere.
A set of demands linking higher wages, better working conditions, a more livable quality of life for workers both free and incarcerated can join the two movements, increasing their might exponentially. Just like the bosses use national borders to divide and disorient the workers’ struggle, they also use the walls of prison cells to fracture our movement. We must resist this artificial barrier. Labor is labor, wherever it may be exploited.
The flaw of the first movement against convict-leasing is that it stopped once free labor no longer had to compete with prison labor on the market. By compromising with the system and losing its focus, the labor movement never won the most important gain: the abolition of the system of wage slavery. Consequently, American workers were condemned to the misery of the Great Depression, two world wars, another half-century of Jim Crow, and all the other horrors of 20th century capitalism. And in the last quarter of a century, the hated practice of convict-leasing has returned with a vengeance.
But today the American working class is stronger in quantity and quality than ever before. And more than that, American capitalism is at its weakest moment in all of history and it shows no signs of recovery. Not only will we reanimate the proud legacy of the American labor movement, we will do so on a higher level, finally finishing our centuries-old battle with capitalism with the socialist revolution.
For ultimately, the fight against prisons, convict-leasing, and all forms of capitalist exploitation and oppression will always be a fight against their very system. Prisons are the natural product of a system in which labor is a commodity. To the iron fist of the free market, our sweat and exhaustion is just another resource to exploit from repositories of human flesh and blood.
And in capitalism, the “justice” system is a meat grinder to process the unwilling and unable back into the labor force. American labor is supervised under one of the most repressive police forces on this planet, divided up by color, and put on a conveyor belt through broken schools and jobless cities. Our quality of life is slashed by the swinging cleavers of austerity and underemployment, and when our drained bodies fall victim to disease, we are left to rot without adequate health care. Inevitably a section of our class spoils and gives up on wage slavery for a life of crime or vagrancy, becoming unusable to the bosses as proletarians. Thereupon the capitalist state forces them back into the labor force by inventing the prison.
But while prisons were originally created as a cog in the self-correction of capitalism’s contradictions, they soon assumed an even greater purpose—to create a layer of the working class that can be exploited beyond the norms of the labor market. It is no accident that the majority of American inmates are nonviolent offenders working behind bars full time. When capitalism could play a progressive role in the development of the productive forces, it instituted chain gangs to power the rise of mighty American industry. The epoch-making strides of the railroad magnates provided it with a relatively stable lease on life. But today, capitalism has lost even that role. It may have returned to its old habit, but it can never return to the days of its youth when it pushed production forward on a historic scale. Today, it is in fact a fetter on production, and the reemergence of convict-leasing only serves the undead longevity of an obsolete system. Both must be broken with the same blow.
There has never been a convict more culpable than this system. Capitalism is the most effective terrorist, prolific thief, and sadistic madman on the planet. To speak of “justice” while it continues to exist is criminal.