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U.S. Prison Inmates To Strike Over Poor Living Conditions


Inmates in many of America's prisons are ready to strike today. Prisoners in Georgia, South Carolina, Florida and 14 other states will boycott their assigned jobs this morning. Others are preparing for a hunger strike. They're all protesting labor issues and poor prison conditions. German Lopez is a senior reporter at Vox. He's been covering this and joins us in our studios this morning.

Hi, German.


GREENE: So what has led to this?

LOPEZ: So the biggest issue right now is this idea of prison labor. Inmates earn, on average, according to The Marshall Project, 20 cents an hour in state prisons from doing jobs, essentially. And that's really the main motivating factor for this. A lot of the inmates have described this as prison slavery, and they're really taking issue with what they say is, like, exploitative labor practices. There are also concerns with just general prison conditions. So there was a riot in South Carolina prison earlier this year, and that really motivated some of the inmates in that state to really start what this movement has become.

GREENE: But it sounds like the labor conditions are really driving a lot of people here. And just so people know, I mean, these are all different sorts of jobs. There are inmates who have been fighting fires in California. They do work with contractors who work with Starbucks - I mean, a lot of different jobs here.

LOPEZ: Yeah, that's right. And one of the things that's interesting here is it's actually difficult to find out which private companies even benefit from this because they're obviously very secretive about this. It can be bad PR, that kind of thing. But in a lot of these cases, these inmates are doing anything from chores around the prison to making products for private companies, and they're being paid well below minimum wage. Some of them are not being paid anything at all, and some of them are forced to do this work. So that's really where you start getting this idea that, like, this is involuntary servitude and slavery.

GREENE: You say involuntary servitude, but we should say - I mean, this is legal, whether people agree with it or not, under the U.S. Constitution. What is the response from prison officials and government officials about, you know, the demands that prisoners are making here?

LOPEZ: So one, yeah, they point out that it is legal. Under the 13th Amendment, you can, essentially, force somebody into involuntary servitude or slavery as a punishment for their crime. So that's one thing - is that this is legal. The other thing is that they argue that this does actually benefit the inmates in a lot of ways because they get to do these jobs; they get to get, like, work experience. There are studies out there that do show that inmates who participate in these kinds of programs who have better chances of getting a job and less chance of reoffending when they're out of prison. So that's kind of what they focus on, is that this is a really rehabilitative program.

GREENE: I suppose planning a protest from inside prison cells is not the easiest thing in the world. So how large do we expect these hunger strikes and these protests to be?

LOPEZ: Yeah, that's something that's - we still don't know for sure yet. We do know that at least 17 states are participating. I mean, one thing that I expect to see is that, over time, we'll see exactly how this is working out, whether these are being truly successful. This is kind of like what we saw in 2016. There was another round of prison protests, and when these were first announced, we really had no idea just how big they were going to be. But by the end of it, at least a dozen states had participated. Twenty-four thousand inmates was one of the estimates that came out of it. And it's just kind of one of those things that spreads by word of mouth, and eventually, you see more and more inmates taking it up. And that's a hope here for these activists.

GREENE: German Lopez is a senior reporter at Vox. Thanks a lot.

LOPEZ: Yeah. Thanks for having me.

[POST-BROADCAST CLARIFICATION: In this report, we say inmates do work for contractors who work with companies like Starbucks. While Starbucks, in the past, has accepted prison labor from contractors, Starbucks says it currently has no business relationships with suppliers that use inmate labor.] Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: August 30, 2018 at 12:00 AM EDT
In this report, we say inmates do work for contractors who work with companies like Starbucks. While Starbucks, in the past, has accepted prison labor from contractors, Starbucks says it currently has no business relationships with suppliers that use inmate labor.

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