September 13th marks the 45th anniversary of the Attica prison uprising, in which prisoners discontent with their poor living conditions rebelled against the guards, a few of which were outspoken racists, in a multitude of ways. Protest began peacefully in the form of hunger strikes and other disobedient actions, but eventually culminated into the taking of 40 guards as hostages. The government was willing to fulfill many of the prisoners’ demands, but refused the protesters’ amnesty, resulting in military action that left 30 prisoners and nine guards dead.
For over a week now, prisoners have acted upon this important anniversary. Across 21 states, prisoners are refusing to fulfill their mandatory work, in protest of what they deem a form of modern-day slavery. It is not the first protest of its kind, but it is the first to be nationally organized. An official announcement from the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee reads as follows: “In one voice, rising from the cells of long term solitary confinement, echoed in the dormitories and cell blocks from Virginia to Oregon, we prisoners across the United States vow to finally end slavery in 2016.”
The slavery to which they are referring is the critically underpaid tasks, such as landscaping, custodial work and cooking, that prisoners are forced to fulfill. In federal prisons, prisoners can expect compensation ranging from 12 to 40 cents an hour; in Texas, Georgia and Arkansas, prisoners won’t be compensated at all. Refusing to work often results in severe punishments, most notably isolation or extended sentences. As the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee notes, none of this is illegal. According to the 13th amendment, the US would no longer allow slavery or involuntary servitude “except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.” Slavery, then, is legal in America in this case.
Of course, it’s not the legality in question here. Prisoners across the country are demanding basic human rights and there’s a good chance you haven’t heard of it.
Many mainstream media outlets have neglected to cover the strike, instead devoting their time to everything from political conspiracy theories like Clinton’s body double to advertising in the form of “exclusive” movie trailers. In an interview with AlterNet, a media co-chair of the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee accused mainstream media of favoring ‘spectacle over substance’. In this way outlets might be incidentally encouraging an end to the peaceful methods of protest currently being utilized in favor of more ‘newsworthy’ tactics. Many members of the protest believe that prison faculty are neglecting to report the protests. This is negligence is only possible because of the protest’s pacifistic nature. If prisoners do resort to violence, their voices might be heard. Heard, however, by an increasingly unsympathetic public.
Attica should be proof that anyone — even the criminalized — can be heard, not that violence is necessary in order to grab the media’s attention. To ensure that this issue becomes public knowledge, and perhaps to some level that the movement remain pacifistic, the media needs to rethink its priorities. Human rights issues, such as a modern day slavery that is allowed in and by the United States, should maybe take precedent over baseless scandals or shameless marketing.