United States: Modern day gulag goes on strike

January 23, 2011

You may have read about the prison riot in England on New Year’s Day, with prisoners staging an uprising over searches for contraband booze. What received less coverage was the much bigger and more important protest by prisoners in the United States in December.

Prisoners in a number of Georgian prisons began a strike on December 9, the December 20 Huffington Post said. The strike was called off after six days, “following reports of violent crackdowns and rising fears that the situation would escalate”, the article said.

The strike crossed racial lines as Black and white prisoners refused to work in protest against prison conditions. The strikers demanded a living wage, decent health care, nutritional meals, access to rehabilitation, fair parole hearings and family visits.

Prison advocate Elaine Brown told Democracy Now! prisoners in Georgia “are not paid one dime” for labour they are forced to perform. Brown said prisoners in the US are “mostly being paid a dollar a day to 50 cents an hour”.

The prison industry in the US is big business. A March 10, 2008 GlobalResearch.ca article said: “[T]he federal prison industry produces 100% of all military helmets, ammunition belts, bullet-proof vests, ID tags, shirts, pants, tents, bags, and canteens.

“Along with war supplies, prison workers supply 98% of the entire market for equipment assembly services; 93% of paints and paintbrushes; 92% of stove assembly; 46% of body armor; 36% of home appliances; 30% of headphones/microphones/speakers; and 21% of office furniture. Airplane parts, medical supplies, and much more: prisoners are even raising seeing-eye dogs for blind people.”

This huge industry based on involuntary labour has also been used by the largest corporations to undercut workers’ rights and make a killing.

The use of prisoners as virtual slave labour has led to examples of the reversal of the practice of outsourcing US jobs to the Third World.

GlobalResearch.ca reported: “A company that operated a maquiladora (assembly plant in Mexico near the border) closed down its operations there and relocated to San Quentin State Prison in California …

“[Former] Oregon State Representative Kevin Mannix recently urged Nike to cut its production in Indonesia and bring it to his state, telling the shoe manufacturer that ‘there won't be any transportation costs; we're offering you competitive prison labor’.”

US companies can even run prisons themselves. Since the 1980s, the private prison industry has boomed.

As the US prison population skyrocketed, the US ruling class did what it always does, and pointed to the free market for a solution to its jailing of millions of its own citizens: it let private prisons ease the burden on the federal government.

Hundreds of “correctional facilities” are run by private companies housing tens of thousands of prisoners.

The problem is that even the US Bureau of Justice says the efficiency savings private prisons were meant to make “have simply not materialized”. What happened was that a spate of violent prisoners escaped because privatised prisons cut corners for profit.

The reason the prison industrial complex has grown to become such a huge part of the US economy is simple: the prison population in the US has quadrupled in the past 20 years.

The US imprisons more people than any other country in the world at any time in human history. With only 5% of the world’s population, the US has almost 25% of the world’s prison population, a 2009 study by the International Centre for Prison Studies at the King’s College London said.

A 2006 Justice Policy Institute report put the number of prisoners in the US at almost 2.5 million, close to 1% of the population. In 1980, when the “war on drugs” was launched by the US government, prison numbers were under 500,000.

Despite this huge rise in prisoners, reports of crime have actually decreased since 1980. US right-wingers claim this is because more people are in jail. But the overwhelming majority of prisoners in the US are held for non-violent crimes.

The huge increase in jailings is due to the “war on drugs”. Politicians in the US used a massive crack cocaine epidemic as an excuse to jail hundreds of thousands of people, allowing them to pose as “tough on crime”.

Most of those arrested were not drug dealers though, but drug users. GlobalResearch.ca said in the US, you can get 5 years without any chance of parole for possessing 3.5 ounces of smack/five grams of crack.

This means those jailed for drug offences are predominantly poor and Black. Almost 40% of the US prison population is made up of Black males, despite only making up 12% of the population.

The war on drugs itself was biased against Black males, with people who smoked crack (the cheap form of cocaine used by the poor who are often Black) being treated much more harshly by the justice system than cocaine in its more expensive pure form.

For example, you’d have to get found with 500 grams of pure cocaine to get the same punishment (five years) as someone with five grams of crack. Cocaine is a hell of a drug (for jailing lots of folk).

The “war on drugs”, and the huge increase in prison population and jailing of Black males, means there are more Black men in jail than in college in the US.

We are still waiting for “Mr-Change-You-Can-Believe-In” to rectify this situation but we won’t hold our breath. Keeping lots of young black guys in jail makes a few white guys in Washington a lot of money.

There are cases where it is a good thing to encourage prisoners to work: it keeps them active, can help rehabilitate them, teach them new skills and prepare them for life outside. But the fact is right now, rehabilitation in the US isn’t just frowned upon as being too liberal, it’d be a hammer blow to large parts of the economy.

Societies are ordered by what makes money for the people in charge of it, and there’s no motivation to stopping the justice system from jailing millions in the US. In fact, it is the opposite.

The US prison industrial complex is very, very profitable for the people who get a cut out of it. The war on drugs may have failed to stop drug use in the US but it has been a roaring success for the shareholders of hundreds of companies, private prisons and military suppliers who have jailed drug addicts to use as slaves.

People who commit the worst, most violent crimes, such as murder, assault or rape, should be behind bars, but those who get addicted to drugs should get help from their government to go clean, instead of working for years in the 21st century equivalent of cotton picking.

[Abridged from the Scottish Socialist Youth website, www.ssy.org.uk .]

Below: QI host Stephen Fry explains facts on the US prison population and prisoner labour.

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