Inmates plan nationwide prison strike over forced labor, appalling conditions

Strikes are planned in at least 17 states demanding prison reforms.

The Lee Correctional Institution, in Bishopville, South Carolina. CREDIT: LOGAN CYRUS/AFP/Getty Images
The Lee Correctional Institution, in Bishopville, South Carolina. CREDIT: LOGAN CYRUS/AFP/Getty Images

Incarcerated people across the United States are set to go on strike next week, demanding wide-ranging prison reforms, several months after a deadly incident at a correctional facility in South Carolina.

A nationwide strike kicks off on August 21, according to the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee (IWOC), and is set to last until September 9, the anniversary of the Attica prison uprising in upstate New York in 1971, when at least 43 people died.

Next week’s strike is being supported both by the IWOC and Jailhouse Lawyers Speak, a group that assists incarcerated people with legal fees.

IWOC’s website lists 10 demands from the strikers, including an end to poor prison conditions, racial over-charging and over-sentencing, voting rights, and “death by incarceration” — life imprisonment without parole. Strikers will also demand equal pay in accordance with the state or territory in which they reside for the services they provide at present for sub-standard wages.


“We are demanding humane living conditions, access to rehabilitation, sentencing reform and the end of modern day slavery,” reads the IWOC statement.

According to Vox, strikes will take place in at least 17 states, although it remains unclear which specific states will be affected and how widespread strikes will be. Incarcerated strikers reportedly will refuse to work during the days specified for the labor action; some will go on hunger strike in an effort to call attention to prison conditions.

Amani Sawari, a spokesperson for the protests, told Vox that the strike should force those outside the prison system to think about the ways in which they are complicit.

“Every single field and industry is affected on some level by prisons, from our license plates to the fast food that we eat to the stores that we shop at,” Sawari said. “So we really need to recognize how we are supporting the prison industrial complex through the dollars that we spend.”

The strike comes several months after the deadliest outbreak of violence at a U.S. prison in a quarter century. In April, seven inmates were killed and another 17 were severely injured when a fight broke out at Lee Correctional Institution in Bishopville, South Carolina. That prison has been characterized by some as one of the most dangerous in the state.


Understaffing and poor prison conditions have been blamed for the violence, and prison officials have faced criticism over how it was handled. One incarcerated man who witnessed the April tragedy exchanged text messages with the AP at the time and said that no medical personnel attended to the wounded, even as some lay dying.

Outrage over what happened in South Carolina isn’t the only factor driving next week’s strike. In some states, incarcerated people have been fighting deadly and historic wildfires, typically for no more than $1 or $2 an hour. That practice is made legal by the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery but made a notable exception: involuntary servitude is still permissible “as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.”

Strikers say that exception means they are the victims of “prison slavery” and that such conditions violate their human rights, something they hope will be addressed during or after their planned three-week protest. The strike itself may wind up dragging on far longer, however — during the 2016 nationwide prison strike, some protests went on for months amid attempted crackdowns by prison officials.