The Attica strikes calls for an end to prison slavery

Emma Downey, Contributing Writer

Prisons across the nation erupted in strikes beginning on Sept. 9, the anniversary of the Attica prison protests in New York in 1971. Attica protesters called for an end to racial discrimination, and the Attica demonstration left 33 inmates dead and many injured at the hands of prison guards. Current protests have so far been nonviolent: the inmates have used tactics of occupation, hunger strikes, and refusing to complete or do their assigned work to rebel. The goal of the protests is articulated as a means to “end prison slavery” by calling attention to the institutional problems of the American prison system.

America is notorious for having the world’s highest imprisonment rates. Incarceration rates spiked in the 1980s with Ronald Reagan’s war on drugs, and continue to climb annually. Systemic issues of racial discrimination are apparent in the demographic statistics of prison populations. Black men have the highest rate of incarceration, with 1 in every 15 black adult men behind bars, while white adults have the lowest rate. However, none of these statistics are surprising, nor are they a recent development.

Racial inequalities are institutionalized across American organizations, and ­­the prison system is no different. Nevertheless, what makes these strikes unique from the Attica strikes, aside from the participation of multiple prisons, is that they are forcing recognition of not only the problems inherent within the individual prisons, but the entire prison system itself.

In calling for an end to “prison slavery,” the prison strikes are illuminating issues of prison wages, lack of opportunity for rehabilitation, prison procedures, and other issues throughout the prison structure. In a statement issued by the Industrial Workers of the World, the labor union claims that the conditions endured by inmates are essentially conditions of slavery.

IWW says that this has been allowed by the 13th Amendment which states, “neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States.” Slavery is an inhumane practice that violates the most fundamental right of an individual to claim their own humanity; even so, our own constitution has a clause to allow for it.

Once again, the issue of protest is not a surface-level issue that can be fixed with reform alone. It is a systemic issue rooted in the foundation of our country upon racist axioms. Nothing will change until we admit this. It starts with a prison strike, don’t let it end there.

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