Nationwide prison labor strikes highlight a group frequently excluded by the labor movement

The 13th Amendment banned involuntary servitude at the end of the Civil War, but with the exception of one group: people convicted of crimes. And since the beginning of September, prison strikes against the low wages and poor conditions of prison labor have been taking place in at least 29 prisons in 12 states among more than 24,000 prisoners, according to the It’s Going Down prison strike campaign.

Since the late 19th century, when inmate labor generally meant a criminal justice system disproportionately targeting, incarcerating, and forcing black men into brutal working conditions without pay, the prison labor movement has substantially progressed. Inmates, while required to perform some work ranging from kitchen duties to cleaning, are paid for their work in most states. Advocates of the system note how studies indicate that jobs in prison teach inmates, a good amount of whom never worked jobs prior to their incarceration, learn crucial work skills and are better positioned to find jobs after being released. Others note how prison labor tends to reduce recidivism and even offer some inmates a “sense of self” and purpose.

That being said, states like Texas, Arkansas, and Georgia do not pay inmates, which, to many advocates, constitutes modern slavery. In the majority of states that do pay inmates, wages generally range from $.23 to $1.15 an hour. This minimal salary, for work that is sometimes incredibly dangerous, is already greatly reduced by taxes and “deductions for victim’s compensation funds, restitution to victims, and child support,” according to Mother Jones.

Additionally, in recent years, rates of inmates who leave prison in debt have been steadily rising due to “per diem” fees placed on county and state prisoners.

It is also worth noting the overarching exploitative nature of prison labor. As one 2014 study by the National Sheriffs’ Association and Treatment Advocacy Center has noted, many inmates tend to have severe mental health problems, rendering them an already deeply vulnerable demographic. In spite of this, inmates have still been fighting a losing battle for rights to better conditions and higher wages, as courts do not recognize them as employees.

The issues faced by inmates sound like the very stuff the labor movement is constantly fighting, and yet there is a distinct reason the movement has increasingly distanced itself from issues of inmate labor in recent years. Most unions have deemed prison labor too competitive with most industries. The irony of not helping inmates achieve higher wages and more suitable conditions is that implementing these would most likely place them on more equal ground with non-incarcerated laborers. Inmates seeking the fair treatment the labor movement has always fought for shouldn’t be punished and face ostracism for being exploited and abused.

In many cases, inmates on strike aren’t even solely asking for higher wages. In Alabama, inmates went on strike simply to call for an end to free labor from prisons, which really isn’t unreasonable. South Carolina inmates on strike last week called for not only fair wages but also restarting GED classes in prisons and more meaningful and relevant rehabilitation programs, which makes sense when you consider that the goal, after all, is to put inmates to work when they leave prison so they can lead dignified lives and be less likely to return to prison.

Prison labor certainly has its pros and can hugely impact inmates’ post-prison lives. That being said, I can only imagine how much more beneficial it would be if it offered inmates more reasonable compensation and fairer, safer conditions. And after all, if inmate labor is supposed to be all about preparing prisoners for working in the “real world,” in the real world, wages and working conditions are often negotiable.