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Editors' Picks National Opinion

The Anniversary of Attica: Prison Strikes, Penal Labor, and the New Jim Crow

On September 13th, 1971, in a tiny rural hamlet thirty-five miles east of Buffalo, state police forcefully retook Attica prison from more than two thousand prisoners in revolt. That same day, after Attica’s inmates had already surrendered, a state trooper unloaded a round of .357 magnum bullets into the skull of inmate Kenneth B. Malloy. Only once Malloy’s “eye sockets were shredded by the shards of his own bones,” did the trooper let up, perhaps in search of his next victim.

Just a few yards away, as inmate James Robinson lay dying, another trooper emptied a load of buckshot into his neck. Today, photographs of Robinson’s blood-spattered football helmet serve as a solemn reminder that he and his incarcerated peers had grossly underestimated the potential capacity of police brutality. Protesters were not beaten back with mere batons that could have been protected with sports gear, as expected. Rather, they were slaughtered like animals by the hands of their State captors.

Malloy and Robinson were only two of the thirty-nine individuals killed during the now infamous Attica prison riot. The McKay Commission, a state panel appointed to investigate the riot, concluded that the onslaught constituted “the bloodiest one-day encounter between Americans” since the Civil War. But violence persisted long past that somber mid-September day. While reports did surface that prisoners were punished by being forced to crawl naked across broken glass, most of the reprisals by correction officers went unreported by the media.

Inmates had organized the revolt in an attempt to secure better living conditions and to broaden religious freedoms. Despite headway made by rebel leadership and the New York Corrections Commissioner towards a peaceful compromise, Governor Nelson Rockefeller, who at the time harbored deep presidential aspirations, demonstrated his “tough-on-crime” stance by ordering the immediate cessation of negotiations and the retaking of the prison by force on September 13th. Under Rockefeller’s orders, the police dropped tear gas before firing 3,000 rounds of ammunition. In the process, the state killed 29 inmates and ten correction officers held as hostages while critically wounding 89 others.

This September, on the 45th anniversary of the Attica uprising, the Incarcerated Workers Organization (IWOC) launched a nation-wide prison strike against penal labor. The strike, which has now grown to constitute the single largest prison strike in American history, was organized through a network of smuggled cell phones in a concerted effort not only to remember the tragic events that transpired 45 years ago but also to carry on the legacy of prisoner agency left behind by the 1971 crusade. Across the nation, inmates are striking against penal labor, a two billion dollar a year industry that represents the continued existence of slavery. In this sense, slavery as an institution was not eradicated by the 13th Amendment but remains deeply embedded into the capitalist fibers of our so-called “egalitarian” democracy.

Despite its unprecedented scope and historical significance, the current strike has been absent from mainstream media outlets. Eclipsed by the reportage on Brangelina’s pivotal divorce and Trump’s latest blunder, the largest prison strike in American history has been relegated to the status of the utterly un-newsworthy. In fact, one week into the strike, neither the New York Times, the Washington Post, NBC News, ABC News, MSNBC, CNN, Fox News, nor NPR had made any mention it. The consequences of this media blackout are twofold. While strikers rely on outsiders to promote their cause, outsider awareness also ensures that post-Attica-style officer-on-inmate reprisals will be precluded by media scrutiny. The absence of media attention thus jeopardizes both the political causes and physical bodies of today’s prison strikers.

What accounts for this media blackout? Structural realities within both the criminal justice system and media industry seem to have contributed to the unsettling silence.

First, media sympathizers could argue that prisons are inherently easy-lockdown environments and therefore prison officials have control over the details they choose to, or not to, disclose. With regard to the current strike, officials have released scant information, confirming protests in only three states (Florida, Michigan, and Alabama), despite informant reports that the strike has taken hold in 25 states.

Jails like Rikers Island, which the media has indicted time and time again, also witness a high rate of turnover and allow frequent contact with family and lawyers. Prisons, by contrast, are further removed from the free world, rendering them replete with relatively silent strikes and scandals, part of the shadowy depths of America’s marginalized unknown.   (For those unaware of the distinction between prisons and jails, prisons house convicted individuals, while jails are primarily reserved for pre-trial detainees who are constitutionally ineligible for involuntary penal labor).

But there is another, more insidious and disheartening explanation for the media’s silence. In this age of rapidly declining readership, journalists are increasingly beholden to the whims of advertisers and the interests of web surfers seeking cheap thrills to keep their businesses afloat. One impact of this trend is that media outlets now place an unprecedented premium on violence. For example, on September 3rd when a group of Native Americans protesting an oil pipeline were bitten by security dogs, photographs of the handful of injured demonstrators went viral and even appeared on major media outlets such as the New York Times, CNN, and NBC. Of course, none of these networks have made mention of the peaceful IWOC strike.

Apart from media sensationalism, there is the more unsettling fact that many of the media’s biggest corporate advertisers use prison labor. These advertisers include AT&T, Bank of America, Chevron, GEICO, McDonald’s and Walmart. Verizon, which also employs prison labor, even owns two of the largest internet-based news aggregators: Yahoo and the Huffington Post. Such advertisers are deeply incentivized to conceal the problematic truth of their labor sources. For example, although Walmart’s website explicitly disavows penal labor, one of its leading produce suppliers, Martori Farms, relies nearly exclusively on prison laborers. Walmart’s blatant obfuscation of truth suggests a real anxiety on behalf of the corporations, who, like others, may have been driven to make negotiations with the media to downplay this record-breaking strike. Perhaps overdependence on advertising revenue will be the end of media rectitude.

Lastly, both the media and the American public at large share the proclivity to side with government officials over those seen as criminals. This last point taps into the much deeper issue of prejudice against convicts and the accused, a prejudice rooted in historical events such as the War on Drugs, the criminalization of poverty, race, mental illness and addiction, the uptick in popular archetypal portrayals of the pathological convict, and even the passage of the 13th Amendment.

Many Americans are unaware that the 13th Amendment does not actually outlaw slavery in its entirety. Rather, the very Amendment that purports to outlaw slavery simultaneously preserves it through a loophole that sanctions involuntary servitude “as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.” According to legal historian Colin Dayan, the 13th Amendment serves as the “discursive link” between the chattel slave and the prisoner. In this sense, the emergence of convict leasing and chain gangs after emancipation illustrates the criminalization of race and the racialization of crime.

Today, all medically able incarcerated individuals are required to participate in penal labor. Some of those individuals carry out jobs within the facility such as cleaning, while others are employed in prison work programs, whereby private entities employ prison labor to manufacture or service goods.

Those in favor of upholding this system of penal labor often cite the potentially rehabilitative nature of such work. Studies claim that when an incarcerated individual is employed in a prison work program, he or she enjoys an improved sense of self, develops marketable skills, and is incentivized to stay out of trouble because work shifts him or her away from a “criminal mentality.” As a result, those employed in prison labor supposedly witness a lower recidivism rate.

These studies, however, are heavily skewed by selection bias and thus methodologically unsound. They are conducted by comparing those who work for the facility (cleaning, cooking etc.) with those who are employed by private corporations in prison work programs. But only 7% of eligible inmates apply for prison work programs, meaning this 7% were self-selected and may have different motivations and backgrounds that drive them to seek work that is generally considered more difficult and long-term. Apart from the methodology, the reported p-values for such calculations uniformly exceed .001, meaning their results are statistically insignificant by the standards universally recognized by the scientific community.

Next, penal labor proponents argue that incarcerated individuals should work according to a principle of fairness. It isn’t fair, they claim, for the taxpayer to be burdened by the crimes of a fellow citizen, nor is it fair for incarcerated individuals to get a “free-ride” in prison while most innocent Americans must work to survive. Perhaps the more radical members of this camp would even invoke an eye-for-an-eye philosophy whereby people who have not conducted themselves as “decent human beings” simply do not merit decent, humane treatment.

This line of ethical argumentation both ignores the religious origins of the penitentiary as well as the racial and socioeconomic unfairness implicit in America’s policing practices and legal apparatuses. Just as the word penitentiary is derived from the Latin word paenitentia meaning repentance, so too was the prison conceived as a cradle of spiritual rebirth and rehabilitation, rather than as a house of tortuous punishment. Moreover, given the fact that poverty, non-white skin color, illiteracy, mental illness, and drug addiction significantly increase the chance of incarceration, those incarcerated ought not be punished for the often challenging circumstances in which they were born.

Considering the fact that over two million Americans (1% of our total population) are engaged in penal labor, one might think that such labor would be subject to modern labor standards. While incarcerated individuals are not explicitly excluded from statutes such as the Fair Labor Standards Act and the National Labor Relations Act, courts have continually ruled that prisoners fall outside the confines of a legal “employees”, a distinction critical to worker protections. Court precedent dictates than a legal employee both has an overseer who has sufficient control over the work conditions and that the worker’s relationship is primary of an economic character. While courts find that prisoners fulfill the former qualification, they claim that a prisoner’s relationship to penal work is not primarily economic, but social and penological.

As would be expected, the absence of legal protections gives rise to myriad injustices. For example, a 2010 Brennan Center for Justice study found that states are increasingly charging their prisoners “user fees” to underwrite their carceral bill. Such user fees drive prisoners into a self-perpetuating cycle of debt by the time they are released. This policy is even applied to the handful of prisoners whose prison work programs pay them a fraction of minimum wage, with salaries ranging from just a few cents to under two dollars an hour.

Such user-fees not only threaten the successful reentry of a formerly incarcerated individual, but they also pose issues on a broader scale. That is to say, such a system of fee collection perpetuates a problematic incentive structure for the prisons’ interests over those of the prisoners, best exemplified in the state of Florida where prison workers saved taxpayers upwards of $59 million in fiscal year 2014. Shrunken state deficits, of course, enthrall lawmakers who in turn bolster the legal protections surrounding penal fee-extraction.

While in recent years the media has placed police discrimination in national spotlight, catapulting the Black Lives Matter movement to new heights, discussion of the prison-industrial complex has been largely confined to academic settings. We read about the implications of mass incarceration not on the front page of the New York Times, but rather in scholarly works like Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow. Only once this outgrowth of American slavery finds its way to national headlines, however, can it be eradicated once and for all.