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Slaves of the State: Prison Uprisings and the Legacy of Attica

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Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and Its Legacy
Heather Ann Thompson
Pantheon, $35 (cloth)

In September a national network of incarcerated Americans conducted the first-ever coordinated prison strike against U.S. prison labor. The strike’s manifesto, “ Call to Action Against Slavery in America,” declares, “We will not only demand the end to prison slavery, we will end it ourselves by ceasing to be slaves.” During the three-week strike, an estimated 24,000 prisoners in over 29 prisons across at least 23 states refused to work. Facing the threat of administrative lockdowns and individual punishments, the strike ended within a month with its demands unmet. Some individual prisoners are continuing the protest through hunger strikes and disturbances while others are making coordinated plans for future protests that will include activists outside prison. The strikers’ demands varied from state to state and included unionization, fair wages, better medical treatment, access to legal aid, and an end to degrading conditions, including corporal punishment and prolonged stays in solitary confinement. But the shared goal among all was to draw attention to the continued use in U.S. prisons of slave labor.

A total laboring prison population of nearly 900,000 people is coerced to work for a $2 billion-a-year prison industry. The average daily wage is 93 cents. Yet up to 80 percent of these meager wages can be withheld for reasons such as “room and board.” Four states, all in the South, pay no wages at all: Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, and Texas. Indeed, while Texas prisoners work without any pay whatsoever, Texas Correctional Industries, a for-profit corporation operated by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, posted nearly $89 million in profits during 2014.

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