This Labor Day all activists, organizers, advocates, and progressives need to remain cognizant of the plight of the incarcerated, whose labor often is left out of the discourse.
By Devyn Springer
While Labor Day has become synonymous with simply being known as the long weekend filled with barbecues, cheap cocktails, and laughs with friends, it is historically much more than that; it is meant to be a celebration of the radical trade unionists and organizers of the early Labor Movement which is responsible for many of our worker’s rights today. Moreover, it should be a celebration of the worker, the contributions to the world the laborers make, and a transgression against current abuses and exploitations workers face.
This year massive protests and demonstrations across the country have taken place to demand high minimum wages, particularly the #FightFor15 organizations call for a $15 minimum wage. In other parts of the country immigrants folks are also marching for the rights of immigrant workers, especially in relation to the recent news that Trump has declared war on DACA recipients. While these causes are important, noble, and timely, there is a population of workers whose plight and labor is overlooked each year: the incarcerated.
In our conceptualization of “labor,” “laborers,” and “workers,” we often naturally overlook the labor of incarcerated people, which is not a coincidence. Not just their labor, but their conditions and lives as well are often overlooked in most public discourse, as the prison system is this way by design. In most states, the geography of prisons alone is enough to create this erasure; state and federal prison facilities are often places on the outskirts of towns, hour-long drives away from cities. Incarcerated populations are, often quite literally, out of sight and out of mind to the general public, thus the plight of their struggles and their labor is naturally disregarded.
The general invisibility of incarcerated populations is what allow for such violations of human rights and exploitation of labor to occur, notes Angela Davis in a 1998 interview. “Challenging the invisibility of incarcerated populations, and especially the hyper-invisibility of women prisoners who are twice marginalized — invisible in the “free world” by virtue of their incarceration and largely overlooked even by prison activists by virtue of their gender,” Davis states, “is central to resisting the social dispossession wrought by the prison industrial complex.” This means that the invisibility of incarcerated peoples, especially the most marginalized within that population — women, the disabled, queer and trans individuals – is a form of dehumanization that is central to the creation of the shadow prison economy that has became an American economic backbone today.
When discussing Labor Day, both its history, contemporary symbolism, and importance, it is important to discuss incarcerated labor because it is the same racially skewed slave labor which built this capitalist system. Labor movements have often run parallel to various prison labor abolition/prison abolition movements, but have rarely fully intersected with each other during their highest moments. In today’s carceral state that exists, including prison labor in all of our movements is a must. Prison labor is a billion-dollar industry, with miniscule to no return to incarcerated workers. The vast majority of incarcerated laborers work for mere pennies an hour to do the work of both private corporations and public sector institutions — weaving textiles, creating road signs, basketball rims, lingerie, construction, roasting potatoes, just to name a few — and even take on dangerous tasks which law enforcement officers and first responders take credit for, like the incarcerated women in California who fight wildfires for less than $2 a day.
Through private third-party companies, several corporations, like Victoria’s Secret, Walmart, and WholeFoods, contract incarcerated labor from public and private prisons to cut production costs. In fact, set decorators from recent Hollywood film “Dunkirk” bragged about using saving money by using prison labor to build parts of the set, stating “I hope the producers know, because we saved a lot of money that way.” If even possible, the private prison industry becomes a seemingly more audacious evil against workers to combat, which new evidence suggests hold inmates longer to boost profits. The private prison industry makes $7.4 billion per year, houses around 20% of federal inmates, profits from doubling as immigrant detention centers, often forces labor upon inmates, and is responsible for much of the incentive-policing which causes militarized, brutal police presence in impoverished areas. What does this mean? It means that the slave labor of incarcerated people is exacerbated by both state-owned and private prisons, and the US government has been contracting private prisons through independent corporations; in other words, imprisoned populations, their bodies and their labor, become dehumanized capital for trade.
Of course, this led to a creation of a dehumanized, fugitive class of people whose labor is needed to sustain state economies. As aforementioned Angela Davis details greatly in her book “Are Prisons Obsolete,” it was the labor of “convict leasing” during the 19th Century which build much of the railroads, streets, and city infrastructure we praise as the turn of industrialization. Even the busiest and most famous street in Atlanta, Peachtree Street, was built by “convicts.” What occurred was a the creation of arbitrary and petty law aimed at recently freed Black people, with the goal of creating a sustainable convict class of mostly Black people whose labor could be rented and exploited for economic development. Does that sound familiar, the creation of racially biased, targeted laws to create a convict class of Americans whose labor can sustain a state economy? It should sound familiar, because it is exactly what takes place today with incarcerated workers, and is exactly why we must bring the plight of prison labor into the discourse of the general public.
It would be a disservice to my incarcerated comrades to not mention the constant strikes, protests, writings, and demonstrations which inmates hold to challenge the conditions of their confinements. Last Labor Day prisoners staged the largest prison strike in US history, taking place for several weeks at over 30 prisons across 12 states to protest what they called “slavery” due to the forced labor they undergo. This strike intentionally took place on the 45 year anniversary of the Attica Prison Uprising that saw over 1,000 prisoners take over their prison to demand better living conditions and more fair sentencing, among other demands. In fact, incarcerated people protest their conditions and slave labor often, with hunger strikes, labor strikes, protests, and other forms of resistance taking places across several prisons every year.
The mainstream media very, very rarely covers prison strikes, most obviously because that would rupture the bubble of invisibility which must be maintained to perpetuate the exploitative conditions. While last year’s prison strike spread to more and more prisons and lasted several weeks, mainstream outlets like CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC, including those members of the Democratic Party who claim to be the “resistance” had virtually nothing to say about the important events unfolding. Prison labor, as well as the rights of incarcerated people, is a struggle that intersects with all identities, and is at the center of capitalist exploitation in the United States. This Labor Day all activists, organizers, advocates, and progressives need to remain cognizant of the plight of the incarcerated, whose labor often is left out of the discourse. If we wish to create liberation movements, we must make sure to include our incarcerated siblings.
Here is a list of extra resources for readers interested in delving into the prison industrial complex and abolition:
- Angela Davis’ “Are Prisons Obsolete?”
- The “Beyond Prison” Podcast
- The Prison Culture blog
- Angela Davis’ “Abolition Democracy”
- Alternatives To Prison list
- Articles, essays, and books about mass incarceration
- National Bail Out initiative
- Critical Resistance organization
- Prison Activist Resource Center
- Beyond Reform TedTalk
- The Empire Files on mass incarceration
- Beyond The Prison Industrial Complex lecture
- The Abolitionist Toolkit
- 10 Year Strategy to end the prison industrial complex
Author Bio: Devyn Springer is an Atlanta writer, activist and artist who recently published his debut book “Grayish-Black” which is available on Amazon. You can follow him on Twitter at @HalfAtlanta.