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Florida Prisoners Are Preparing to Strike Against Unpaid Labor

Michael Arria

Florida prisoners are demanding payment for their labor. (kittirat roekburi/shutterstock.com)

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.

Michael Arria is the U.S. cor­re­spon­dent for Mon­doweiss. Fol­low him on Twit­ter: @michaelarria.
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