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Prisoners Across the US Are Going on Strike for These Important Reasons

Why Global Citizens Should Care
In the United States, people of color and those living in poverty — often overlapping populations — are incarcerated at disproportionate rates due to deeply entrenched discrimination and systemic problems. However, incarcerated individuals still deserve to be treated fairly and with dignity, as those participating in the nationwide prison strike are calling for. You can take action here to help end extreme poverty and amend discriminatory policies.

Prisoners across the United States are going on strike Tuesday in protest of “modern slavery” and poor prison conditions.

Inmates in at least 17 states — including California, where thousands of inmates are paid $1 an hour to fight dangerous wildfires — are calling for the recognition of their humanity and an an “immediate end to prison slavery.”

The strike is, in part, a response to a violent riot that took place at a maximum security prison in South Carolina this April, in which seven inmates died, according to a press release from Jailhouse Lawyers Speak, the incarcerated group of prisoner rights advocates leading the protest. The group attributed the deadly riot to conditions exacerbated by overcrowding and a lack of respect for the lives of prisoners.

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For the next 19 days, prisoners participating in the mass demonstration will not report to their assigned jobs. These range from internal jobs like cooking for fellow inmates and cleaning the facility to jobs performed for external corporations, like sewing underwear for Victoria’s Secret.

Prisoners are typically paid below-market rates for this work, which states and companies rely on, leading prisoner rights advocates to liken the system to “modern slavery.”

Read More: California Is on Fire — These Inmates Are Putting Out Flames for Just $1 an Hour

In fact, when the US passed the 13th amendment abolishing slavery, it made an exception allowing slavery and involuntary servitude only “as punishment for crime.”

But it’s not that inmates don’t want to work.

“Prisoners do like having the opportunity to earn, because they do have to support themselves financially in a lot of ways,” Amani Sawari, a spokesperson for the protests, told Vox. “Prisoners have to provide for their health care, their dental care. They have to buy food if they want to eat outside the three times a day most prisons serve … They have to buy clothes like jackets and boots, hygiene products, cosmetics, books, study materials, paper, tape, scissors [and] they want to be able to.”

They simply want to be treated with dignity and humanity and for their work to be valued fairly.

Read More: New York Prisons Are Making It Much More Difficult to Send Books, Fresh Food to Loved Ones

“Prisoners want to be valued as contributors to our society,” Sawari said. “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.”

However, the strike is about more than just wages and awareness. Among the 10 demands outlined in the demonstration press release are calls for an end to racial discrimination in the system, including “an immediate end to the racial overcharging, over-sentencing, and parole denials of black and brown humans.”

The US is home to just 5% of the world’s population, but holds more than 20% of those incarcerated globally, according to the American Civil Liberties Union. And people of color and those living in poverty — often overlapping demographics in the US — are incarcerated at overwhelming disproportionate rates. Black people were incarcerated at nearly six times the rate of white people in the US in 2010, according to government data.

Read More: The US Prison Population Is Falling — But Not for Incarcerated Women

Incarcerated people of color, particularly black people, are also treated worse while imprisoned. Black men are placed in solitary confinement at significantly higher rates than imprisoned white men. People of color are also frequently given longer sentences than white people for the crimes, but are less likely to be granted parole.

Over the next few weeks, inmates will also participate in peaceful sit-ins and hunger strikes as part of the demonstrations, which will end on Sept. 9 — the anniversary of the 1971 riot at Attica Correctional Facility, a maximum security prison in New York, during which dozens were killed.