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Closing Argument

What an Alabama Prisoners’ Strike Tells Us About Prison Labor

Exploitation of incarcerated people isn’t limited to lockups. Voters in some states have a chance to curtail it.

Prisoners stand in line at Elmore Correctional Facility in Elmore, Ala., in 2015. Thousands of Alabama prisoners began a work strike this week to protest poor prison conditions.
Prisoners stand in line at Elmore Correctional Facility in Elmore, Ala., in 2015. Thousands of Alabama prisoners began a work strike this week to protest poor prison conditions.

This is The Marshall Project’s Closing Argument newsletter, a weekly deep dive into a key criminal justice issue from reporter Jamiles Lartey. Want this delivered to your inbox? Subscribe here.

People incarcerated in the Alabama prison system began striking Monday over what they’ve described as inhumane treatment. Organizers say thousands have participated in the work stoppage.

The protesters have a list of demands, including changes to the state’s parole and sentencing laws. Gov. Kay Ivey has called the list “unreasonable.”

In the wake of the strike, some Alabama prisoners have shared pictures of the miserable portions of cold food now being served, with some calling it an “attempt to starve out protests.” One image shows a hard dollop of grits served with a single slice of cheese and a few bits of canned fruit. Prison officials have said the change to meals is not retaliation, but simply a matter of capacity, since the people who typically cook are not working.

Whether or not you buy that, one thing is indisputable: Incarcerated people, in Alabama and across the rest of the country, perform a tremendous amount of labor both within prison walls and beyond them. In many cases, people only notice it when it stops.

Prison labor can be roughly divided into two categories. There are those who work inside prisons, doing jobs related to the facility’s operation, like cooking, cleaning and washing laundry, often for pennies an hour. In some states, they don’t get any wages.

Then there are incarcerated people working in non-prison jobs, like agriculture, manufacturing and call centers. Sometimes these jobs are done directly for state-run industries for similarly paltry wages, and sometimes prisoners are leased out to private companies, which often — at least in theory — promise to pay more.

Exploitation is rife in all of these systems. This summer, the Arizona Republic published an investigation on how private businesses were paying the state up to $12.80 per hour for prisoner labor, but workers were only netting about 50 cents per hour after the state’s profit-taking and fees.

The Republic also found that incarcerated people were sent to work in dangerous conditions with no way to complain, and were rarely trained in marketable skills useful after release. The promise of training is frequently a selling point for these programs. If you don’t have a Republic subscription, or the time to dig into the deeply reported series, you can listen to one of the lead reporters, Joseph Darius Jaafari, speak about some of the findings here.

While the Republic’s investigation found that low wages helped make the state’s prison industry profitable, this isn’t always the case. Last year, The Marshall Project’s Keri Blakinger described how despite paying pennies an hour, many prison industries actually lose money.

The wages incarcerated people earn are rarely adjusted for inflation, while prices at the prison store, or commissary, do tend to increase, essentially slashing pay for prison laborers over time. In New Jersey, wages haven’t increased since 2001, while the average price of commissary items climbed 11% last year, according to reporting from the New Jersey Monitor. For more on why income is so important behind bars, check out our Prison Money Diaries.

Some prison labor is completely unpaid, in part because the U.S. Constitution’s 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery and involuntary servitude, still allows it for people convicted of crimes. Many state constitutions contain similar language, but that’s slowly changing as a handful of states — Colorado, Nebraska and Utah so far — have abolished the “slavery loophole” in recent years. In one Nebraska county jail, that means that incarcerated people are paid $20 to $30 a week, where they used to be paid nothing.

This November, voters in Alabama, Louisiana, Oregon, Tennessee and Vermont will decide the fate of similar anti-slavery initiatives.

That change, should voters approve it, would carry special historical weight in Tennessee. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the state was at the forefront of convict leasing. Under the Jim Crow practice, Black men and boys were targeted with vague criminal laws, tried in kangaroo courts, and convicted speedily as a means of re-incarcerating formerly enslaved people and their descendants. An estimated 500 Black men died in Tennessee coal mines under convict leasing.

While it was largely a southern phenomenon, convict leasing found its way west too. Truthout reports that in the early 20th century, California “fire wardens and sheriffs targeted ‘vagrants’ who couldn’t prove their employment,” and dispatched them into prison forest camps.

Some of that legacy lives on in the state’s use of incarcerated firefighters to battle wildfires. Some struggle to be hired to do the same work once they get out of prison. Still, many are grateful for the experience. As Matthew Hahn told The Marshall Project in 2020: “I think there’s an element of redemption that happens when you’re a prisoner firefighter, because you’re getting thanked. Somebody’s calling you a hero… When people are in need, they don’t give a shit where you’re from or what your history is.”

Jamiles Lartey Twitter Email is a New Orleans-based staff writer for The Marshall Project. Previously, he worked as a reporter for the Guardian covering issues of criminal justice, race and policing. Jamiles was a member of the team behind the award-winning online database “The Counted,” tracking police violence in 2015 and 2016. In 2016, he was named “Michael J. Feeney Emerging Journalist of the Year” by the National Association of Black Journalists.