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Protesters held signs and photos of Guantanamo detainees at a hearing of the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Constitution, Civil Rights & Human Rights during a 2013 hunger strike at the prison.
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Do Prison Strikes Work?

Amid a current prison work stoppage, here are five strikes and how they turned out.

On Sept. 9, prisoners across the country stopped showing up for their work assignments to protest what they call slave-like conditions for incarcerated workers. Inmates make pennies an hour keeping the prison running — such as cleaning and cooking — or providing cheap manufacturing for private businesses. Inmates involved in the protest are calling for higher wages, better working conditions and less severe punishment while on the job.

The work stoppage was organized by inmates in multiple states and labor activists with the Industrial Workers of the World to coincide with the 45th anniversary of the Attica riot, which was preceded by a strike in the prison’s metal shop. Prisoners and labor organizers on the outside hoped it would be the largest prison strike in history. It’s hard to quantify exactly how many prisoners in how many states have participated, as prison officials and organizers give conflicting accounts of its scope. Activists claim inmates in at least 11 states are taking part.

This strike is the latest in a long history of prisoners trying to use what little leverage they have — whether work stoppages or hunger strikes — to demand change from administrators. Some have been more successful than others. Here’s a look at five other prison strikes and what came of them:

Post-WWII Labor Strikes

University of Michigan professor Heather Ann Thompson’s history of labor movements in prison details how a series of work stoppages and sit-down protests took off in prisons across the U.S. in 1947. In little over a decade, hundreds of prisoners in Connecticut, New Jersey, New York, Wisconsin, Louisiana, Ohio, and Georgia stopped working to protest long hours, trifling pay, and grueling work environments. Prisoners in Georgia and Louisiana went even further and slit their heel tendons so they could not be forced to work.

While the work stoppages did not lead to immediate changes, they inspired another era of prison protest in the ‘60’s and ‘70’s, which included the Attica work stoppage and eventual riot. Those movements achieved slight pay raises and improved safety precautions in some states and led to the creation of prisoner-led unions.

2010 Georgia Labor Strike

In 2010, state prisoners across Georgia launched what many then called the largest prison work strike in U.S. history — though official numbers are difficult to confirm. At the protest’s height, organizers said thousands of inmates participated across at least six state prisons. Georgia inmates were paid nothing for their work, as dictated by state law, and were asking for better conditions and more access to programming. Not only were Georgia inmates not showing up to their job assignments — they refused to leave their cells at all until their demands were met.

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The strike lasted six days, and garnered coverage in news outlets like The New York Times. It ended when prisoners decided to leave their cells to go to the law library and try to sue for improvements instead. (It’s unclear what became of those efforts). Prisoners in Georgia are still not paid for their labor.

2011-2013 Pelican Bay Hunger Strike

In 2011, 400 prisoners in California’s supermax prison started refusing their meals. Their numbers grew to 7,000 as they were joined by prisoners all over the state. The inmates had a list of five demands, including limits on solitary confinement and changes to how the prison determines gang membership. Their fast ended after three weeks when prison officials agreed to reconsider some of their solitary confinement policies. Inmates returned to hunger-striking later in 2011 and again in 2013 saying the changes were too small and too slow.

But the protests did have a significant impact. After the initial strike, the chair of the California Assembly’s Public Safety Committee held a hearing on conditions at Pelican Bay. In 2012, the nonprofit Center for Constitutional Rights filed a class-action lawsuit against the state over its use of prolonged isolation. Todd Ashker, one of the strike’s organizers, was the lead plaintiff. The suit was settled in September 2015, addressing many of the strikers’ concerns about how people end up in solitary and how long they remain there.

2013 Guantanamo Hunger Strike

Detainees at the U.S. military prison in Cuba began hunger-striking in March 2013 to fight against their indefinite detention and alleged mistreatment. At the strike’s peak in July that year, 106 men were refusing to eat and 45 were being force-fed through nasal tubes.

The strike — for its duration, size, and the graphic nature of force-feeding — outraged the public and policymakers and increased pressure on President Obama to fulfill his promise of closing the controversial prison. Since the strike, Obama has lowered the number of men held at Guantanamo from over 2,000 to 61, but has yet to close the prison entirely.

2015-2016 Immigration Detention Center Hunger Strikes

Since 2015, hunger strikes have begun at various immigration detention centers — prison-like facilities where immigrants are held while their deportation case is decided — throughout the U.S. Roughly 200 detainees at Eloy Detention Center in Arizona stopped eating in June 2015, in part to pressure an investigation into recent deaths at the facility. That fall, immigrants in detention in California, Alabama, Louisiana, and Texas also stopped eating to object to their indefinite detention and poor conditions. More recently, 22 mothers being held with their children in a family detention center in Pennsylvania went on a hunger strike this August. Their strike accompanied a series of handwritten letters they sent to immigration officials asking to be released from indefinite detention. The strike has continued off-and-on since then, with even their children threatening to refuse to attend classes in solidarity with their mothers. It’s too soon to tell what the impact of their protests might be.