Brief #58—Civil Rights

Policy Summary
In 11 states, prisoners and prison organizers have organized hunger strikes, work stoppages, and commissary boycotts to protest deplorable prison conditions and to demand the end of what they call “prison slavery” for 19 days of peaceful protest. The strike is being spearheaded by incarcerated members and organizers of Jailhouse Lawyers Speak (JLS). The last nationwide prison strike took place on September 2016 when more than 20,000 inmates refused to show up for work across 12 states.

On August 12th, JLS organizers released a statement calling for fellow prisoners to stop their senseless violence and to collectively organize around issues focused on their basic human and political rights. In April of this year, Lee County correctional facility in South Carolina experienced the deadliest prison riot in a quarter-century that went on for over seven hours without any staff intervention and resulted in several inmates’ deaths.

JLS listed 10 demands to improve prison conditions, including an end to life without parole sentences, increased funding for rehabilitation services, and the end to disenfranchisement. The statement explained how prison conditions are a human rights violation due to their inherent violence and further incitement of prison violence because of understaffing, exploitation of labor, and lack of comprehensive rehabilitative programs. For instance, most U.S. prisons lack basic mental health services and resources, like libraries and workshops, to help occupy prisoners’ times and improve their emotional, social and career development while in prison. Incarcerated workers are also some of the most exploited in the world because there is no minimum wage for their labor. The average wage is 20 cents/hour, with some states not paying anything. 80% of wages can still be withheld by prison officials. States such as Louisiana pay a horrific wage of 4 cents/hour. LEARN MORE

The 13th amendment abolished “slavery and involuntary servitude, except as punishment for a crime.” In the documentary Thirteenth, director Ava DuVernay explores the historical context of this one exception, which has allowed the exploitation of prisoners who have no constitutional rights as a result of the amendment. According to the ACLU, 1 out of 3 black men can now expect to be incarcerated in their lifetimes; that’s compared to 1 in 17 white men. Furthermore, according to 2017 Prison Policy Initiative report, women – especially young black women – are the fastest growing incarcerated population, and 60% of women in jail have not even been convicted of a crime and are merely awaiting trial. Despite being only 5% of the world’s population, the U.S. has 25% of the world’s prison population. Since 1970, this statistic has increased by 700% with 2.3 million people in jail and prison today.

Unsurprisingly, the national strike has been blacked out by the mainstream, corporate media. According to Integrated Workers Organizing Committee ( IWOC), “ The government spends as much as an elite college tuition per person to keep each of us incarcerated, but this money does not develop us as human beings, reduce crime or make our communities safer.”


  • Jailhouse Lawyers Speak – Organization where prisoners providing mutual help and legal training to other inmates.
  • Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee (IWOC) – IWOC led the first prison strike in U.S. history on September 9, 2016. The committee is a prisoner-led section of the Industrial Workers of the World working to abolish prison slavery with external allies and organizers.
  • Prison Legal News (PLN) – Monthly magazine since 1990 covering prison labor, sexual abuse, misconduct by jail staff, prisoners’ constitutional rights, racial and socioeconomic disparities in the justice system, medical and mental health care for prisoners, disenfranchisement, rehabilitation and recidivism, prison privatization, and much more.
  • ACLU’s Campaign for Smart Justice – Multiyear campaign to reduce U.S. jail and prison population by 50% and to combat racial disparities in the criminal justice system.
  • National Lawyers Guild (NLG) – The oldest and largest progressive bar association and the first to be racially integrated. NLG unites lawyers, law students, legal workers, and jailhouse lawyers to function as an effective force in the service of the people by valuing human rights over property interests.

Further Education

Submitted by USRESISTNEWS Analyst Tina Lee;

Photo by Hédi Benyounes

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