Reprinted from Reader Supported News
Prisoners across America went on strike last week to protest poor wages, a lack of adequate medical care, poor food, and the utter absence of any educational or training opportunities. This doesn't sound like a big deal. But it's unprecedented. Prisoners in the United States are forbidden by law from going on strike. And, indeed, federal Bureau of Prisons regulations prohibit strikes as "interfering with the smooth running of the institution," an offense punishable by immediate transfer to solitary confinement.
I had it pretty easy during the two years I spent in federal prison after blowing the whistle on the CIA's torture program. Still, I wouldn't wish prison on anybody. It's dehumanizing, depressing, and as the "greatest country in the world," we should be utterly ashamed of the prison system we have.
Let's look at prisoners' demands.
Wages: The Wall Street Journal reports that many prisoners earn between $0.74 and $3.34 per day. I have news for them. When I worked as an orderly in the prison chapel in the Federal Correctional Institution at Loretto, Pennsylvania, I earned $0.60 per month. That's right. Per month. That's normal in prisons across the country. There are far more prisoners than there are jobs, and there's even less money to pay them. Incidentally, for most prisoners, salaries come from commissary profits. So it's usually prisoner money paying for prisoner labor. But the matter is worse than that.
Many prisoners work full-time in something called "UNICOR," also known as Federal Prison Industries. It is in UNICOR that federal prisoners earn that dollar a day to build furniture, man call centers, and do any number of other jobs. This amounts to slave labor that somebody, somewhere, is making a profit on.
And there are even worse components to it. First, as an example, prisoners at Loretto were put to work making electronic cable for the U.S. Navy. But at a dollar a day, their hearts weren't in it. So much of the cable was deemed to be substandard that it had to be scrapped. Even without labor costs, it was a complete waste of the taxpayers' money.
Furthermore, paying prisoners subservient wages and forcing them to work in a commercial, for-profit enterprise puts other Americans out of work. How in the world can a small company compete with prison labor? It can't. And as a result, Americans are thrown out of work.
Food: My first full day in prison was a Friday. That's fish day in federal prisons across the country. As I was walking to the cafeteria, a fellow prisoner warned me, "Don't eat the fish. Ever. We call it 'sewer trout.'" I stayed away from the fish. But when I got down to the food line, I saw boxes stacked up. They were all marked, "Alaskan Cod. Product of China. Not for Human Consumption. Feed Use Only." It wasn't even human-grade food.
Just before I got to prison, a private food service company, John Soules Foods Inc., "accidentally" sold dog food to prisons to be fed to prisoners mismarked as "ground beef." There was no punishment for the company or its executives, other than a $392,000 fine, the cost of the investigation, paid to the U.S. Treasury. Prisoners got nothing. Not even an apology. And the shame of the story is that nobody could even tell that it was dog food. It tasted the same as everything else prisoners are served.
Medical care is probably the most important of the issues strikers want to see addressed. Certainly, volumes could be written about the abysmal state of healthcare in U.S. prisons. Four people died of preventable medical problems while I was at Loretto. Nobody in the administration cared. Holly Sterling, the wife of imprisoned CIA whistleblower Jeffrey Sterling, told me recently that a prisoner near Jeffrey last week asked permission to go to sick call because he wasn't feeling well. The corrections officer denied his request. The prisoner died two hours later of a heart attack.
Prisons routinely deny basic medications, access to a doctor, and any access to outside medical professionals or tests. Many prison officials will admit privately that, sentimentality aside, it is far cheaper for them to just let a prisoner die than to pay for expensive outside medical care.
Educational Opportunities: There are none. Period. In the federal system, educated prisoners teach other prisoners how to get their GEDs. But that's it. In the "good old days," prisoners could learn a skill -- plumbing, electrical, mechanics, etc. The idea was that if they had a skill, they could find a job upon release. That, in turn, would reduce recidivism. But that was in the good old days. Now there's nothing. It's no wonder that recidivism is so high.
I refrained from encouraging prisoners to go on strike last week. I didn't want to be responsible for anybody being sent to solitary confinement, which the United Nations has deemed to be a form of torture. But I support the strike 100 percent. I hope it's successful. And if it isn't, then maybe it ought to become a more permanent action.
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