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On strike: The men and women in prison call for reform

On August 21, men and women in prisons across the US declared a nationwide strike to take place from that date through September 9. Their demands are for humane living conditions, access to rehabilitation, sentencing reform and the end of modern day slavery. Prisoners in at least 17 states agreed to withhold their work; to engage in peaceful sit-ins, to boycott prison stores, or to engage in hunger strikes. One trigger for the strike was a riot in a maximum security prison in South Carolina where 7 inmates were killed during four hours when guards did not intervene..

“The main leverage that an inmate has is their own body. 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 dinner time, if they choose not to clean or do the yardwork, this is the leverage that they have. Prisons cannot run without prisoners’ work,” stated Amani Sawari, a spokesperson for the protests.

In the US we lock up people at the highest rate in the world. Out of every 100,000 people, we imprison 724. This is double the rate of a decade earlier. Over half the people in prison were sentenced for non-violent crimes. People confined in jails, prisons, immigration detention centers and juvenile detention centers across the country meet with physical mistreatment, overcrowded and barely tolerable living conditions, extreme disciplinary treatment, routine use of solitary confinement, exposure to violence from guards and other inmates, lack of medical and mental health care.

Prisoners also have to pay for things they need in prison: soap, phone cards, tampons, food, books, shoes… even the cost of their imprisonment. In a 2005 National Institute of Justice survey, thirty-eight percent of responding jails imposed “pay-to-stay” fees for housing, meals, or both. As of 2010, at least twenty-four states had statutes authorizing jail fees.

In 1979, Congress passed the “Prison Industry Enhancement Certification Program” to create “employment opportunities that approximate private sector work…” Instead the program became a profitable scheme for companies to get cheap labor—the daily wage for inmate workers in 2017 ranged from an averaged minimum of 86 cents to an averaged maximum of $3.45. The average pay in state prisons is 20 cents an hour, according to the Marshall Project. In some states, inmates work for free. Some companies using prison labor have been Victoria’s Secret, Starbucks, Microsoft, Walmart, Boeing, Whole Foods, American Airlines…

A note on incarceration in Thurston County: Thurston County has the highest average daily bed rate ($111) of any county in the state of Washington and the jail is on average close to full every day (98%). According to the 2017-18 Thurston County budget, costs for criminal and civil justice including the courts, prosecution and defense, policing and the jail consume 76% of the general fund and are constantly increasing. Despite a drop in crime, the jail population is increasing, in particular the population with special needs (elsewhere it states that 44% of the Thurston County Jail population has a diagnosable mental illness).

Bethany Weidner has never seen the inside of a jail, but considers this a failing.

Information in this article came from The Brennan Center for Justice, the Prison Policy Initiative and the Marshall Project, among other sources. To learn more: http://sawarimi.org/national-prison-strike

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