TALLAHASSEE, FLORIDA – Prisoners in Florida went on a statewide strike on Martin Luther King Jr’s birthday this week, after having issued a list of demands in December. Operation PUSH, as the action is called, is scheduled to last for one month. The prisoners are demanding fair wages for the work that the prisoners do; fair pricing for the goods they must purchase from the prison; and a restoration of parole to end what the inmates call “Buck Rogers release dates” – lengthy, often astronomical sentences.
Inmates in Florida are not paid for their work; instead, time is deducted from their prison sentences. In the words of Jacqueline Azis, an attorney with the Florida chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union:
A lot of times people will work in order to get time deducted, and then the prison guards and officials will find ways to punish someone for what the prisoners are saying are made-up reasons that then extend the person’s time.”
Prison slavery enshrined in U.S. Constitution
When Florida prisoners say they want an end to prison slavery, they’re not being hyperbolic.
They’re not calling it prison slavery simply because they aren’t paid wages for their work, despite the $38 million that the state’s Community Work Squads provided in 2017. It’s prison slavery because that mode of punishment is enshrined in the United States Constitution. The 13th Amendment, ratified in 1865, states:
Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”
The shifting role of prison in the U.S.
The Religious Society of Friends, also known as Quakers, created the first jail in the 1700s in Pennsylvania. It was conceived of as a place where persons who committed crimes against society would be sent to do penitence – reflect on what they had done and how they might contribute to society instead of preying upon it. It was supposed to be a place of both punishment and rehabilitation.
The theme of rehabilitation continued throughout the founding and maturing of the U.S. up until the 1970s. A push towards punishment and away from rehabilitation began during the time that the Civil Rights movement began to yield to the more threatening Black Power. Both of these phenomena involved the galvanizing of African-Americans in demanding equality and an end to discrimination.
The end of chattel enslavement via the 13th Amendment – except in prison – was also a transformation that heavily involved African-Americans. Scholar Angela Davis notes in her work Are Prisons Obsolete? that the “Black Codes,” which were created to repress the movements of newly freed African-Americans in the aftermath of slavery, provided a direct link into the prison system:
The new Black Codes proscribed a range of actions-such as vagrancy, absence from work, breach of job contracts, the possession of firearms, and insulting gestures or acts-that were criminalized only when the person charged was black.”
Fast forward nearly a century to a new period of backlash in the 1970s. Still reeling from the upheaval of the 1960s, there were also a number of prison uprisings that helped trigger a new and steeper decline from rehabilitation towards more punitive confinement. The most notable uprising of that era was Attica.
Limited options for prisoners seeking reform
The uprising at Attica, begun as an observance of the murder of California inmate and author George Jackson a couple of weeks prior, was the largest and deadliest prison rebellion of the 1970s. Deadly as a result of the violence carried out by New York state troopers in putting down the rebellion. The demandsmade by the inmates were not unreasonable: payment of fair wages for work; the right to form a union; and the ability to have insurance for on-the-job injuries were just three of several that dealt with the issue of compensation for labor.
Rebellions and work stoppages are the most potent weapons available to prisoners since, under the Constitution and by law, slavery is allowed to exist in U.S. prisons and jails. The action by Florida prisoners this week is the second such move undertaken by them. They were involved in a nationwide protest in September of 2016 to mark the 45th anniversary of the Attica uprising. Billed as the largest prison strike in history, the event was called specifically to end prison slavery:
This is a call to end slavery in America. This call goes directly to the slaves themselves. We are not making demands or requests of our captors, we are calling ourselves to action. To every prisoner in every state and federal institution across this land, we call on you to stop being a slave, to let the crops rot in the plantation fields, to go on strike and cease reproducing the institutions of your confinement.”
As of press time, supporters of the Florida prison strikers were demonstrating at the state Department of Corrections. One woman was arrested after police were called. The department issued a press release stating there were no reports of any inmates stopping work.
With prison slavery, or “involuntary servitude,” sanctioned by the U.S. Constitution itself for those convicted of crimes, striking prisoners seeking payment for their work and decent treatment are appealing to a more fundamental principle: what is fair and right.
Top Photo | A prison guard on horseback watches inmates return from a farm work detail at the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola, La. (AP Photo)