Why a Prison Strike?

In August and September 2018, prisoners in at least 30 prisons across 16 states engaged in strike actions. Through a quiz, reading, and discussion, students learn some facts about U.S. prisons and recent prison protests. 


From August 21 to September 9, 2018, prisoners in at least thirty prisons across 16 states engaged in strike actions. The actions ranged from hunger strikes to labor strikes and were initiated in an effort to improve prison conditions and end forced labor.


A Quiz on Prison in the U.S. 

1.  How many people are imprisoned in the United States?

a. 2.3 million
b. 8.5 million
c. 85,000
d. Somewhere between 300,000 and 400.000
e. The information is not publicly available

2.  By what percentage has the prison population grown in the last 40 years?

a. 11%
b. 29.2%
c. 50%
d. 500%
e. -2%

3. True or False:

The United States and Iran have the two highest incarceration rates in the world.

4. True or False:

The 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution (abolishing slavery) makes an exception for prisoners.

5. The imprisonment rate for blacks as compared to whites is:

a. 1.5 times as high
b. Twice as high
c. Four times as high
d. Five times as high
e. Approximately the same in state prisons, but almost twice as high in federal prisons


1. a. 2.3 million

2. d. 500% as of 2016, which is the latest year reported by the Bureau of Justice Statistics.

3. False. The U.S. has 655 people in jail per 100,000 population (the highest rate in the world). The next highest rates are in El Salvador (with 605 per 100,000) and Turkmenistan (with 552 per 100,000). Iran has 284 prisoners per 100,000 people.

4.  True. “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, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”

5.  d. Five times as high.



Reading: Why do prisoners strike, and how?

The August-September 2018 prison strikes were coordinated through two prisoner organizations: Jailhouse Lawyers Speak (JLS) and Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee (IWOC).

While protests by people in prison have broken out sporadically for years, nationwide actions are new:

  • In 2016, following multi-prison strikes in California and Alabama several years before, a coalition of groups both inside and outside prison organized a national protest to begin on September 9, the anniversary of the Attica Prison Uprising of 1971. An estimated 24,000 inmates in 24 states participated in a variety of strikes and protests that year.
  • Between 2016 and 2018, there were prison protests and riots in Massachusetts, Delaware, Washington, Kansas, Louisiana, and Missouri.
  • In August 2017, juvenile offenders at Lincoln Hills youth prison in Wisconsin took to the roof to taunt guards and rain debris down on them, run around, and do back flips. The prison, which has been plagued by allegations of inmate abuse and unsafe working conditions for staff, is now set to be converted into a prison for adult inmates.
  • On April 15, 2018, a prison riot erupted at the Lee Correctional Institution in Bishopville, SC, pitting rival gangs against each other. Guards did not take action for seven hours while seven inmates were killed and 22 injured. A statement from Jailhouse Lawyers placed the blame on the corrections system: "Seven comrades lost their lives during a senseless uprising that could have been avoided had the prison not been so overcrowded from the greed wrought by mass incarceration, and a lack of respect for human life that is embedded in our nation’s penal ideology.”

People in prison face enormous difficulties in coordinating actions:

  • Prison officials lock down facilities when they suspect any sort of inmate collective action.
  • Prisoners who are known to organizers are sometimes isolated in solitary confinement.
  • Prisoners in many prisons know they might face physical punishment or withdrawal of privileges (access to choice jobs, classes, visitors, library, yard time, etc.) if they strike.
  • Those in prison are allowed no unmonitored communication with the outside. Cell phones and internet are not permitted and calls and letters are not confidential.

The incarcerated organizers have learned to surmount some of the obstacles. Sometimes guards are sympathetic and sometimes the low-paid prison staff can be bribed to smuggle cell phones into the facility. Notes are passed hand to hand. Prisoners in solitary shout the information in the hope that someone in a nearby cell can hear. The radical union Industrial Workers of the World, which organized the IWOC, and other outside groups provided essential support for the 2018 strike. Obtaining media coverage helped spread the message in those prisons that allow broadcast or print media.

The prison strike organizers agreed upon a set of demands. One of the biggest concerns is the issue of forced labor. People in prison are often required or coerced into working jobs for no pay or next to nothing. The prisoners work  inside the prisons in kitchens, laundries, and manufacturing shops. Outside the prison, they might work on farms, in sweatshops, or in factories.

This “prison-industrial-complex” has included contracts with Starbucks, Whole Foods, Victoria’s Secret and McDonalds. Some contractors have ended the relationship after being publicly shamed. The work inmates do is valued at several billion dollars per year. In California, a third of the people fighting the huge wildfires were prisoners—some of them youth. Their right to slave labor is actually enshrined in the U.S. Constitution, which explicitly excludes prisoners from the provisions of the Thirteenth Amendment, which prohibits slavery.

Inmates' other demands include:

  • Giving incarcerated persons the right to vote. (Only two states allow prisoners to vote and most restrict voting rights even after a person has served their time. Florida denies voting rights to over a million former prisoners. In November 2018, Floridians will vote on whether to loosen these restrictions.)
  • Restoring Pell grants for prisoners. (Until 1994 prisoners were eligible for financial aid for college courses while imprisoned, making it more likely that they’d be able to find jobs after their release.)
  • An end to racial bias at every stage of the criminal justice system: policing, charging, sentencing, and paroling. (The multiracial prisoner organizers stress the need to end divisions among the incarcerated themselves.)
  • Congressional action to amend or rescind laws that reduce the legal rights of prisoners and eliminate the possibility of any parole. (“No human shall be sentenced to Death by Incarceration or serve any sentence without the possibility of parole.")

“The nature of the crime can’t change, but the nature of the person can. All we need is a little help.” — Anonymous prison striker in South Carolina



For Discussion

  1. Over 75% of prisoners are re-arrested within five years of their release. What are some ways that you think this "recidivism rate" could be reduced? (Consider researching this question as follow-up.) 
  2. States spend an average of over $30,000 to house one inmate for a year. Is there a better way to spend that money that would help the individual and the community?
  3. Do you think the Thirteenth Amendment should itself be amended to prohibit slavery for people in prison? Why or why not?
  4. “The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.”  —Fyodor Dostoevsky. What does Dostoevsky mean by the quotation above? To what extent do you agree or disagree?