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U.S. Inmates Plan Nationwide Prison Strike To Protest Labor Conditions


Organizers are calling for the more than 2 million people incarcerated in the United States to go on strike. Inmates and their advocates planned the national prison strike to push for better conditions in prisons around the country, and they're planning sit-ins, hunger strikes and work stoppages through September 9 in order to make their point. NPR's Cheryl Corley joins us now to talk about the latest. And, Cheryl, organizers say they're expecting this to be the country's largest prison strike. It's not the first. Tell us how it's being organized and how we know how many people might participate.

CHERYL CORLEY, BYLINE: Well, Audie, prisoners have been planning this strike for a while, and they were spurred in part by a prison strike that occurred a couple of years ago in 2016 and by a prison riot that occurred in South Carolina earlier this year. That riot left about seven people dead and several more injured. Prison officials said that was due to gangs, but prisoners said it happened because of the poor prison conditions. And that's one of the reasons for this strike.

Organizers with a group called Jailhouse Lawyers say inmates in more than 17 states are participating. People outside the country, too. And they tell me they get word out about the strike in a variety of ways - through prison newspapers, by word of mouth, or even by radio, if inmates have access to that. And I talked to Nia Beech (ph), who works at Kateline (ph) Radio. That's a prison radio show that acts as an avenue for people in prison and the formerly incarcerated.

NIA BEECH: We definitely know that prisoners in Canada have already launched their strikes, and we have confirmation about South Carolina and Louisiana. We do have striking prisoners at the high-correctional facility in North Carolina.

CORLEY: And organizers say they expect those numbers to spread, but they really won't have any idea about how many people participated for months, if they get those numbers at all.

CORNISH: The prisoners do have a list of demands. They're calling for more rehabilitation programs, improved conditions. What else are they asking for?

CORLEY: Well, they want sentencing reform. For example, they want to get rid of sentences of life without parole. They want an end to the practice in some states of not allowing people with felony convictions to vote. But one of the biggest issues is prison labor. The inmates say they want to be paid the prevailing wage because they do all sorts of jobs, most often for the prison itself, like working in the kitchen or doing laundry. But they also do work for private companies.

And University of Michigan historian Heather Ann Thompson just says it's really a mixed bag when it comes to prison labor. She wrote a book about the Attica Prison riot, and she says we often don't know much about prison labor because prisons aren't required to report that activity. What we do know is that prisoners are saying it's modern-day slave labor. And Thompson says they do typically make very little money, on average about 4 cents to 20 cents on the dollar, if at all.

HEATHER ANN THOMPSON: Folks are not making enough money even to be able to pay their commissary charges, to be able to send money back home to their children. So it really is an exploitative situation no matter what the labor is that's being done.

CORLEY: And Thompson and other folks say, yes, work in prison does have value, but they say what's going on inside prisons is exploitive and can hurt workers outside, as well, depending on what type of work those prison inmates are actually doing.

CORNISH: Given how much we know about this already, how are prison authorities responding?

CORLEY: Well, just a couple of responses today. The Federal Bureau of Prisons said earlier there haven't been any reports of inmate work strikes in any of its facilities. And the head of the North American Association of Wardens really didn't address any concerns directly but said if there is a major action by inmates, either violent or nonviolent, that there are policies and procedures to address it.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Cheryl Corley. Cheryl, thank you.

CORLEY: You're quite welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Cheryl Corley is a Chicago-based NPR correspondent who works for the National Desk. She primarily covers criminal justice issues as well as breaking news in the Midwest and across the country.