In 1984, General Parker worked as a boiler room operator in Illinois. A driven worker, Parker quickly received a promotion, earning him the title of manager and doubling his pay from $20 a month to $40—which at the time was one of the highest-paying jobs in the prison where he was incarcerated. Though he spent only 10 months in prison, the felony record that followed him prevented him from putting those skills to use until he found a job as a boilermaker in 1994, after years of cobbling together other odd jobs to make ends meet.
“I’m always trying to hide from my conviction, even though it was almost 40 years ago now,” Parker said.
The felony, and the minuscule pay he earned behind bars, informs Parker’s work as a criminal justice reform activist, but it also resonates with him as a unionized worker. There’s no reason, Parker believes, that incarcerated workers shouldn’t earn the same wages as everyone else.
“When a guy goes to prison, his family still has those bills even though the provider’s not there anymore,” he said. “The child support keeps adding up. If you’re going to keep his bills the same, why not keep the pay the same?”
It’s a question that many people answer effortlessly: if you commit a crime, you pay the price. But should that price include free labor? Should it include a debt—whether in cash or the scarlet letter of a conviction—that follows many people long after they leave prison, aggravated by fines and fees for failure-to-pay that stack up relentlessly, and in some cases, result in a trip right back to prison?
The role of unpaid or poorly paid labor in that darkly familiar American cycle of incarceration and poverty is one of many reasons prisoners across the country are entering their second week of a 19-day long strike. Organized actions—including hunger strikes, work stoppages, commissary boycotts, sit-ins, and other forms of peaceful resistance—have swept through prisons in North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, California, Halifax, Nova Scotia, and an immigration detention center in Tacoma, Washington, according to the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee, a subgroup of the IWW. Following the lead of Jailhouse Lawyers Speak, a collective of incarcerated people working for prisoner’s rights, IWOC helped coordinate the national strike from the outside.
The strikers have 10 core demands that run the gamut from calling for the repeal of the Prison Litigation Reform and Truth in Sentencing Acts, demanding more access to rehabilitative services, and calling for the reinstatement of voting rights for people with felony convictions. The second demand on the list, which has attracted the most media attention, calls for “an immediate end to prison slavery” and declares that “all persons imprisoned in any place of detention under U.S. jurisdiction must be paid the prevailing wage in their state or territory for their labor.”
The Coalition of Black Trade Unionists of Central Illinois, a subgroup of the AFL-CIO that Parker is a member of, was the first labor organizing group apart from the Industrial Workers of the World to formally endorse the 2016 national prison strike. Two years later, with another even larger strike in full swing, Parker is still working hard to get a message out to fellow union members: organized labor will not survive if mainstream unions fail to embrace incarcerated workers.
Parker has motivated some of his fellow union members to get on board with the interests of incarcerated people by pointing out how “union jobs keep [Black] families together,” while prisons tear them apart, and how prison labor removes jobs from the larger economy and depresses wages. “All might not be on board with the slavery idea, but I’m letting them know for their own sake for their own households, they have to make sure that they support this.”
But drawing large, mainstream unions toward this issue has been difficult.
“It seems like such a logical bridge to build, especially because most of the regressive [corrections] guard unions are not even in the AFL-CIO,” said Heather Ann Thompson, author of Blood in the Water, a history of the Attica uprising, which began as a prison strike.
Yet Parker said he’s been trying for years without luck to meet with Richard Trumka, the president of the AFL-CIO, to discuss labor’s role in aiding prison workers. The AFL-CIO is famously progressive, and has adopted positions on a range of social justice issues over the years, even adding a resolution on criminal justice reform to its charter in 2017. Trumka has also spoken publicly about the connection between criminal justice reform and labor.
“Mass incarceration means literally millions of people work jobs in prisons for pennies an hour—a hidden world of coerced labor here in the U.S.,” said Trumka in a 2014 speech. “And when some people are forced to work for close to nothing, all workers’ living standards are pushed down.”
(The AFL-CIO did not respond to multiple requests for comment.)
Not only is prison labor woefully under- or unpaid, but Brianna Peril, a member and co-founder of IWOC who lives in Kansas City, Missouri, points out that many prison jobs do little to prepare a person for life after prison. After being incarcerated at 18 in North Carolina in the late 1980s, Peril spent a year working a job sewing belt loops onto dark blue men’s prison uniforms.
“My whole entire job was to do this quarter-inch stitch over and over,” she said. “Jobs like those just maintain the prison…they’re not money-making jobs for the corporations and entities that run these things, it’s just something to do with extra people that don’t matter.”
When Peril got out, she went on to study labor organizing in college, and later joined the IWW. In 2014, through discussions with the Free Alabama Movement, a prisoners’ rights organization, she helped found IWOC. The group distributes information to prisoners about labor rights and job training by mail, and assisted in organizing both the 2016 and 2018 strikes.
“As working class people, this is an issue that is immediately of interest to us because of how it affects us and our family’s lives,” Peril said of the choice to align the IWW with the interests of incarcerated workers. The recent strike wave among non-incarcerated workers also complements the organizing of strikers in prison, many of whom are deeply experienced organizers themselves. (For those just tuning in to this year’s strike, incarcerated people are amazing organizers, and they’ve been doing it for long, long time.) The people Peril communicates with in prison “are very much watching the teacher’s strikes,” she said, and “they want to be part of that dialogue.”
At first glance, the strikers in prison may seem to have little in common with the recent labor actions taken by teachers in West Virginia or nurses in Rhode Island. After all, workers in prison not only lack protections enjoyed by many people, such as OSHA standards and a minimum wage, but are uniquely vulnerable to retaliation by the people who imprison them: Organized resistance in carceral spaces has historically resulted in punitive isolation, bodily harm, and death.
But the wildfires spreading across California this summer provide a sharp example of the inequity of prison labor. The men and women risking their lives to stop them came from two distinct camps to do the exact same job. Nearly 4,000 trained firefighters from California prisons were paid $2 a day plus $1 an hour, while Cal Fire firefighters alongside them made a minimum of $10.50 an hour. The labor of the two groups was identical, drawing into stark relief the simple fact that incarcerated people are workers, many of whom do the exact same work as those of us outside of prisons, but for free or next to nothing. The fires also rejuvenated a familiar debate over whether or not the vocational training or rehabilitative benefits provided by some prison jobs outweighs the fact that it is, as the organizers of this year’s strike say, effectively slave labor.
But the cruel irony of Parker’s frustrating experience trying to find work was echoed here, too: In spite of what may appear to be a valuable vocational training program offered by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, becoming a firefighter in the state after release would require an emergency medical technician license, which isn’t available to people with criminal records.
There’s no question that jobs in prison sometimes provide skills-training for life after release, and many incarcerated people have made clear that working in prison can be fulfilling regardless. But experiences like those of Parker, Peril, and the California firefighters complicate the question of how valuable a job that pays next to nothing might be for a formerly incarcerated person saddled with a felony record. What is at stake in this strike is not a question of whether prison jobs rehabilitate, or whether they help people in prison pass the time with a greater sense of purpose. At its core, the demand to end prison slavery is just that: a reminder that prison work is work, and it’s time to pay up.