AUSTIN, Texas — Inmates around the country are demanding an end to inhumane conditions behind bars by participating in a growing wave of work stoppages, strikes, and other forms of activism.
Although many of the prisons or units involved in the strike are on lockdown and not allowing communication with the outside, on Sunday, MintPress News obtained an exclusive interview with Melvin Ray, an organizer in the Free Alabama movement, who is incarcerated at William E Donaldson Correctional Facility in Bessemer, Alabama, about 30 miles west of Birmingham.
“This is something we have to do on the inside, regardless of what people think on the outside, but we would like people to know and understand what we’re doing here even if they don’t agree and support it,” Ray told MintPress.
Ray, who is serving a life sentence for murder, is helping to promote and organize the latest round of protests from a tiny solitary confinement cell, where he was placed after organizing a previous strike in January 2014.
Prisoners engaged in the strike that started Friday say they live in inhumane conditions, citing issues ranging from expensive medical care to a lack of air conditioning, and that their unpaid or underpaid labor is a form of modern slavery.
“From the demonstrations around the country,” Ray said, prison labor is “not an issue that can hold up under close examination. I think people are demonstrating through these work strikes that it’s no longer acceptable.”
Prison labor promotes a ‘criminal mindset’
Although the 13th Amendment to the Constitution did abolish slavery, it also legalized the enslavement of convicted prisoners. An analysis published by WIRED on Friday found that, out of 2.4 million prisoners in the U.S., about 900,000 work.
WIRED’s Emma Grey Ellis wrote:
“A lot of that work is for the prison itself or for the public sector, but corporations — Walmart, Victoria’s Secret, AT&T — contract work out to prisons, too. The estimated annual dollar value of their output runs in the billions, while prisoner laborers make just cents per hour.”
Ray told MintPress that inmates are asked “to work without compensation for our labor, but when we do work it’s generating profit.”
Little Sis, a government watchdog NGO, reported in April that while almost all Texas inmates work for free, Texas Correctional Industries, a private, for-profit corporation operated by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, generated nearly $89 million in profits in fiscal year 2014.
“We’re generating goods and services that are being sold on the open market, that are being sold by private contractors,” Ray added.
While prison officials suggest these work programs promote “marketable job skills,” Ray argues that they actually promote a “criminal mindset.”
He used unpaid kitchen workers as an example. “Guys who work in the kitchen have to steal out of the kitchen, then come back and sell it in the general population in order to survive,” he said.
“When you tell a person, ‘You go to work for eight hours, and we’ll let you steal a few sandwiches, a few tomatoes, a few onions, a few chicken breasts to go back and sell so you can make some money,’ well, you’re promoting a criminal mindset because you’re telling me that I can’t be paid and compensated for my work, but I have to steal something in order to get a coffee or a pack of cigarettes or buy a pair of shoes.”
Further, any job skills that prisoners do acquire may be inapplicable in the outside world. For example, workers at Holman Correctional Facility in Atmore, Alabama, manufacture all the state’s license plates in the state’s only license plate factory, rendering most of their skills unmarketable after release. In March, prisoners at Holman rioted over overcrowding.
“We can’t deny that some of that skillset will translate into society, but the problem is those jobs are not available in society, those jobs are available in prison,” Ray said.
‘We’re freedom fighters’
While limits on striking inmates’ ability to communicate mean it may be weeks or months before the full effects of the strike are clear, Ray believes early reports suggest the action was successful and likely to spark more, ongoing protests. On Sept. 8, the Miami Herald reported a riot in Holmes Correctional Institution in Bonifay, Florida, about 100 miles east of Pensacola in the state’s panhandle.
Rumors are already starting to trickle in about protests and lockdowns that began on Friday, Ray told MintPress. “We found out today [Sunday] that there was a protest at a prison in Michigan, I think they’re saying there is also a woman’s prison involved.”
“We’re always happy to have the women involved, because I think with them being a minority of the incarcerated, their plight, their circumstances are not always put out there. So when they become a part of these demonstrations, we’re super happy because it makes sure that they’re not forgotten in the struggle.”
Some estimates have suggested the U.S. incarcerates one-third of all women prisoners in the world, but even those figures are still a small percentage of the millions of prisoners in the U.S. Although the U.S. represents 5 percent of the global population, the American Civil Liberties Union estimates that 20 percent of the world’s prisoners reside in U.S. facilities.
In recent months, hundreds of prisoners have joined the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee, a group created by the Industrial Workers of the World, an internationally-recognized union. Union organizers on the outside have also helped to organize a wave of protests around the country in support of striking workers which took place nationwide on Friday from Austin, Texas, to Oakland, California.
— Kit O'Connell (@KitOConnell) September 9, 2016
“We would like to see union representation, because people can then negotiate” for better conditions, Ray said.
But he also reiterated that workers represent just one segment of the prison population, and their demands are not the same as the demands of union members on the outside.
— It's Going Down (@IGD_News) September 11, 2016
“We’re freedom fighters,” Ray said. “We’re not just fighting for wages, we’re simply pointing out the fact that this is a slave model of free labor.”
‘There’s no way to improve these conditions’
Although Ray hesitated to talk about himself, he told MintPress a little about the conditions in solitary confinement:
“I sleep on a concrete rock, not a bed, not a mattress. We sleep on a ‘dog mat.’ It’s about 4 inches thick, and if you weigh 150 pounds or 300 pounds you only get one of these little dog mats … The cell is an 8’ x 12’. I have a toilet here in the cell. There’s no air conditioning, the vents are clogged up, my lights are totally inoperable.”
Extreme conditions are the main reason prisoners aren’t merely demanding better wages, but calling for radical changes to prisons and major reform for the laws that put people behind bars.
“There’s no way to improve these conditions,” Ray said. He continued:
“I hear people say we want to destroy the system, we want to destroy prisons. I don’t know if that’s realistic or not, but what has to happen is that they have to build new structures, and they can’t modeled on what has been the model for 200 or 300 or 400 years, because this shit is inhumane, and even if it was in its best state, when it was brand new it was inhumane.”
The U.S. prison system has raised international concerns, including rebuke by the United Nations for overuse of solitary confinement. Ray blamed the media for failing to draw enough attention to the abuses suffered by prisoners:
“These are publicly-owned, and publicly-operated facilities, but not only is the media not allowed in, but the media is not making an issue of it. The reason is that these are international human rights issues that would embarrass the United States.”
Ray hopes people on the outside will hear about the national strike and make an effort to educate themselves about the prison-industrial complex and how they can divest from their part in it.
“Support what we’re doing if you’re compassionate about human rights,” he concluded.
Watch “Nationwide Prison Strike Launches in 24 States and 40 Facilities over Conditions & Forced Labor” from Democracy Now!: