By Zachary J. Guiod, Political Science
Although you may not know it, Sunday marked the end of one of the largest prison strikes in American history. Instead of going to cook in the kitchen, wash clothes, or clean floors, prisoners in 17 states refused to work, and some refused to eat or drink, in order to bring attention to the issues that the 2.3 million prisoners in America face every day. The strike was mainly organized by members of Jailhouse Lawyers Speak, an inmate-based group that provides help and legal training to inmates. Their list of demands includes humane living conditions, access to rehabilitation, sentencing reform and the end of modern-day slavery. These demands are not radical, and if put to a democratic vote most Americans would probably agree their demands should be met.
One of the demands is access to rehabilitation, and this is desperately needed. A recent study from the Bureau of Justice Statistics shows that 68 percent of former prisoners are arrested again within three years of their release. Prisons are supposed to change the behavior of people who have committed a crime so that when they are released, they won’t return to criminal activity — but our criminal justice system currently does the exact opposite.
Another demand is sentencing reform. America has about 5 percent of the world’s overall population but holds around 25 percent of the world’s prisoners. Part of the reason for this is long sentences that are disproportionate to the crime that has been committed. A prime example of this is recently released prisoner Alice Marie Johnson, who was serving a life sentence in prison for first-time, nonviolent drug offenses. There are many arguments against life sentences as a whole — some justice groups call it “death by incarceration” — but a life sentence for a nonviolent offense is indefensible.
Arguably the most important demand and one that has received national attention recently from mainstream media and documentaries such as “13th” is the demand to end modern-day slavery. There are currently states in America where prisoners are paid 4 cents an hour for their labor. These people are exploited daily by being paid these abysmal wages for their work, and they make products you may have used, such as Victoria’s Secret lingerie, uniforms for McDonald’s workers, and furniture for federal office buildings.
A fantastic example of the horrific treatment of prisoners in America are the prisoners in California, who are currently fighting fires to protect their state. They are risking their lives every day – and getting paid a wage of 1$ an hour. The disrespect doesn’t end there. Even after they are released from prison, many can’t become firefighters and get paid the wages they deserve, because even though they are now free, they are also felons, and most employers don’t want someone with a criminal record.
The fight for these demands won’t be won easily. This strike is a great start to get attention for the changes that need to be made, but the changes won’t happen inside of a cell. Incarcerated people need help from those of us who are on the outside and have the power to vote, as many formerly incarcerated people have lost that right. Criminal justice reform needs to be on the list of priorities when deciding whether or not to vote for a particular candidate, because the unjust treatment that prisoners face must come to an end. To quote Dr. King, “An injustice anywhere, is a threat to justice everywhere.”