Why There's a Mass Prison Strike Going on Right Now

October 21st 2016

Willie Burnley Jr.

A mass movement to radically change society has been happening for more than a month across the United States, with virtually no coverage.

Prisoners across the country launched what some believe could be the largest prison strike in our nation's history.

It started on Sept. 9, the 45th anniversary of the prison uprising at Attica Correctional Facility in upstate New York, and has spread to more than 40 correctional and detention facilities in at least 24 states.

The issue is prison labor.

At least 24,000 detainees have joined the strike to protest prison labor practices that the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee called "slavery." The committee is a branch of the Industrial Workers of the World group that served as a liaison to help inmates organize themselves and unionize.

The IWOC is a radical socialist group that seeks to form "a worldwide union for emancipation from the prison system," according to the group's statement of purpose. It is working currently as the primary contact and information conduit for the mass strike. (ATTN: has reached out to the IWOC for a comment on the ongoing strike and will update the story when it replies.)

"In one voice, rising from the cells of long-term solitary confinement, echoed in the dormitories and cell blocks from Virginia to Oregon, we prisoners across the United States vow to finally end slavery in 2016," the group said in an announcement of the strike. The IWOC explicitly makes the connection between mass incarceration and the continuation of enslavement in the United States, as do other groups.

Tactics in the strike vary dramatically.

Some prisoners are staging hunger strikes. Others are destroying prison property. (ATTN: has reached out to facilities where the strike is allegedly occurring and will update the story when we receive a reply.) 

Protesters have issued demands for things beyond an end to prison labor, such as the right to an attorney, repeal of medical co-pays, and humane living conditions.

Congress in 1979 allowed prison worker programs to sell inmate-made goods to the federal government. These programs were supposedly instituted to help rehabilitate and train prisoners so that they would be able to re-integrate into society upon release. There is some evidence that certain of these programs do reduce recidivism, as well as help inmates get jobs when they are out of prison.

But, in most cases, the work became mandatory for all inmates who were physically able to perform it.

This work, by conservative estimates, produces between $2 billion and $20 billion for the U.S. economy annually by requiring incarcerated workers to do anything from manufacture clothes to fight wildfires. Some of the most popular retailers have had to publicly drop prison-made products.

In exchange, prison workers may receive consideration for good behavior that reduces their sentences and potentially earn what are considered by many to be sweatshop wages.