Florida Prisoners Are Preparing to Strike Against Unpaid Labor

By Michael Arria, who covers labor and social movements. Follow him on Twitter: @michaelarria. Originally published at In These Times; cross posted from Alternet

People incarcerated throughout the state of Florida are planning a January 15 work stoppage to protest their conditions, and they say they are prepared to continue the protest for more than a month.

Prisoners in eight prisons are expected to participate in the effort, which they refer to as Operation PUSH. The strike, which was purposely scheduled to coincide with Martin Luther King Day, is designed to advance three major changes: a reduction of canteen prices, payment for labor and parole incentives for prisoners serving life sentences. It is not immediately clear how many incarcerated people intend to participate.

News of the action spread after a statement was posted on SPARC (Supporting Prisoners and Real Change), a Facebook page used by Florida prisoners and their families. The statement was compiled from a series of messages sent by prisoners to the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee’s Gainesville chapter and the national Campaign to Fight Toxic Prisons.

“Every institution must prepare to lay down for at least one month or longer,” the statement reads. “Our goal is to make the governor realize that it will cost the state of Florida millions of dollars daily to contract outside companies to come and cook, clean, and handle the maintenance. This will cause a total breakdown. In order to become very effective, we must use everything we have to show that we mean business.”

The prisoners’ statement claims that cases of soup purchased in the prisons cost $17—well above their cost outside of the prison. “This is highway robbery without a gun,” says the post. They’re also asking for payment for their labor, “rather than the current slave arrangement.” Despite a few exceptions, Florida is one of only six states where prison jobs remain unpaid.

As prison activists consistently point out, the 13th Amendment abolished slavery and involuntary servitude, “except as a punishment for crime.”

Panagioti Tsolkas, an organizer with the Campaign to Fight Toxic Prisons, told In These Times that the state imposes numerous other restrictions, including a ban on Prison Legal News, a magazine dedicated to the subject of prison-related civil litigation and a crucial resource for many prisoners. “We are hoping that this strike sparks conversation about these kinds of issues,” he said.

Last August, all of Florida’s 97,000 prisoners were placed on lockdown after unspecified reports of potential rioting. Initially, the Florida Department of Corrections claimed that authorities had only canceled weekend visitation in response to the rumors, but the Miami Herald discovered that the prisons were on a system-wide lockdown, with all activities suspended.

The paper has also conducted numerous investigations on prison abuse in the state, including a story on an incarcerated man who was locked in a scalding hot shower until he collapsed and died. In December, a group of Florida correctional officers poked fun at a prisoner who had been gassed to death on a private Facebook page, calling him a “bitch” and an “asshole.” Tsolkas said he believes that these incidents have educated some people about the realities of Florida’s prisons. However, he noted, many abuses go unreported.

Tsolkas believes that prison activism received a jolt after the 2016 nation-wide prison strike, which was launched on the 45th anniversary of the Attica uprising and ended up being the largest prison strike in the history of the United States.

Shortly after the Facebook post, a group of Haitian prisoners put out a statement in support of Operation PUSH. “Prisons in America are nothing but a different form of slavery plantations and the citizens of the country are walking zombie banks,” reads the statement, which was published December 28. “There are so many Haitians, Jamaican, and Latinos in the FDOC [Florida Department of Corrections] serving sentences that exceeds life expectancy and or life sentences who are not being deported. They use all immigrants, for free Labor and then deport them.”

In These Times reached out to the Florida Department of Corrections for a comment on the proposed work stoppage. “The Department will continue to ensure the safe operation of our correctional institutions,” the department replied.

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  1. DJG

    Important. Thank you. Someone at the SPARC FB page asks how to raise money. Is there an organization supporting this strike that we can contribute to? Is Panagioti Tsolkas the main contact?

  2. Jonathan Holland Becnel

    Thx, Yves

    Im helping with OPPRC (Orleans Parish Prison Refotm Coalition) to shut down the illegal Temporary Detention Center in District B New Orleans. The same exploiitation happens here in LA and these Prisons must be Abolished.

    OPP is basically a debtors prison for those pre trial folks who are poor and cant afford bail.

  3. Buzz Arnold

    Prison reform in this country is an issue that’s LONG OVERDUE. Obama made an attempt to shutter the “for profit’ prisons after a Mother Jones reporter went to work “inside” one of the prisons. His tale of corruption and abuse was pretty frightening. There will be NO attempt to do anything of that nature under the worst president anybody EVER had. This strike won’t get much coverage in todays corporate owned media. Sad, this country has adopted a fascist government and is destroying many lives as a result. Throw the bums out, all of em !!!

  4. Arizona Slim

    I have a different take on this issue. It comes from the fact that I just came back from a trip and found my house ransacked.

    So, let’s just say that my sympathy for convicted criminals is nonexistent. Because I would very much like to see the perpetrators of my home burglary apprehended and prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.

    If prisoners want a raise, fine. But, speaking as a crime victim, I want restitution. That should be the first priority.

    1. RobPost

      Certainly restitution to the victims of crime needs to be one of the main goals of the legal system, but these prisoners aren’t looking for a raise, they’re looking to be paid something in the first place. Prison is an extremely expensive place to live. Things that would go a long way towards the other primary goal of the penal system, rehabilitation, are often priced beyond the means of the families of the prisoners. I’m speaking of the telephone costs that the families incur. Most prisons are located so far away that visitation becomes an impossibility and a telephone call is the only means of communication. Keeping prisoners in contact with their families is a tremendous influence on their behavior after they’re released back into the world with the rest of us.

      1. Arizona Slim

        Go ahead and pay them something. The first deduction from their paycheck should be for restitution.

    2. Matt

      “There but for the grace of God…”

      This kind of attitude is exactly why we will never have prison reform in this country. Always remember that a zealous prosecutor and unscrupulous police can railroad just about anyone into prison, if they so desire.

    3. UserFriendly

      Imagine the level of desperation someone would need to sink to to risk years in jail for robbing you. Blame this miserable country for not giving them better options than resorting to crime. Homeowners insurance?

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