Prison Labor Corporate Profits, Prison Strike and ‘13th’ Amendment Documentary

Alex Jacobs

Ana Duvernay, the director of “Selma”, has a brand new documentary called 13th that is must seeing in today’s political climate. Unfortunately like other climate change denials or fossil fuel and fracking denials, the people that need to watch truths that run counter to their ideology or industry, most assuredly will not. They will deny it and argue over it but they will not watch it. So here it goes anyway.

The 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution – the abolition of slavery – makes it illegal for someone to be held in slavery or involuntary servitude…but there are exceptions, as in for the punishment of a crime. In the end it creates profit-making from legal slavery with a permanent underclass of incarcerated criminals.

“We now have more African-Americans under criminal supervision than all the slaves back in the 1850’s.” – Corey Booker. “One out of 4 people imprisoned around the world are here in the land of the free.” – Van Jones.

Prisons were built for political reasons based on economics and states ended up needing to keep them filled, as in savings for the state and profits for the corporations. Just like DAPL and ETP needs those pipelines filled to the max. Mass incarceration has become heavily monetized to the tune of billions of dollars in profits with the biggest companies publicly trading their stocks on Wall Street.

All this happened 150 years ago, enabled Jim Crow, led to the coded language of Law and Order, accelerating under Presidents Nixon, Reagan, Bush and Clinton. Under a President Trump or Clinton, we need to look at prisons since many of us could conceivably have our lifestyles re-arranged. Just ask the #NoDAPL water protectors. Make no mistake a large sector of the energy and law enforcement communities have been preparing for this environmental movement vs lawful order showdown for years. You could say, the missing funding in social cutbacks that creates social problems instead goes to oil and gas military misadventures overseas and domestically to the training of warrior cops patrolling urban and rural insurrections supplied with military gear. Call it “Homeland Security”, but it is a merger of business and politics, law and order, which is usually called Fascism. The environmental movement is scary to the establishment because it means white people, who vote, pay taxes and will pay more for renewable energy.

In a way, Native people are treated as Prisoners (of War), our land and resources are collateral for second-class citizen treatment or invested in capitalist ventures (#NoDAPL) from which our profit is more suffering. Until we stand up and disturb the profit-making and only then do the powers that be take notice, except in the corporate media.

Right now there’s a rolling nationwide prison workers strike, since in some states inmates work for a few dollars a day, or a few cents per hour or are paid nothing at all. Corporations, cities, states and the military, have contracts with prisons for this cheap labor to make flags, patches, uniforms, body armor, small and large appliances, or take consumer orders over phones and process your hamburger patties. Small American companies are being forced to lay off workers or close down production because they cannot compete with cheap prison labor. And the list of mainstream corporations that you purchase prison labor products from is large and eye opening.

This year on September 9, the 45th anniversary of the 1971 Attica Uprising, a coordinated mass refusal to report to prison jobs has been going on across the country affecting from 25 to 50 prisons in two dozen states and maybe 25-50,000 American inmates striking out of 860-900,000 who are required to work. In recent years a figure as high as 2.4 million has been reported as the prison population, since the War on Drugs was initiated in 1971. This is as many prisoners as were incarcerated in Stalin’s Gulags. Most of these inmates are required to work and prison labor accounts for $2 billion annually. Big Media mostly has ignored the national story and only a few news outlets have been reporting on it. To Big Media, anything newsworthy coming from prisons will be about violence and riots, but that is not happening. Many jobs are food and kitchen related, so meals have been compromised and food has been rationed into minimal servings, some of it just above a bread and water menu. Prison authorities have clamped down, refusing to say there is any strike, and there are no problems but some strike leaders were transferred. The popular TV show “Orange is the New Black” has developed story lines based on current events, so now people may actually learn something and get involved. Updates on the prison strike can be found here.

Even prison guards at some sites have reportedly joined the actions in limited ways, like where it all started at the Holman Facility in Alabama. Guards also have to live part-time inside decrepit and unhealthy conditions in addition to working the dangerous job as funding cutbacks affect guards, inmates and safety. Recently the Obama administration stated they will phase out contracts with for-profit prisons, sending a clear message that the whole dirty industry is in need of reform, plunging Wall Street stocks of the companies. There are more federal inmates in for-profit prisons but that population is decreasing. Various corporations, businesses and organizations donate to causes to keep marijuana illegal so that prisons remain full but changing trends in society appear to work against it. The Atlantic has a good article attempting to balance the fairness issue between punishment of criminals and slave wages.

The terrible conditions at Attica State Prison that led to inmate and guard deaths in revenge attacks by inmates, police and guards is a whole other story that only now is being uncovered. The often misquoted phrase about prisons and prisoners, comes from Russian writer, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, who knew something about Gulags: “The degree of civilization in a society is revealed by entering its prisons.”

Alex Jacobs, Mohawk, is a visual artist and poet living in Santa Fe.

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