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Economy

The Not-So-Invisible Labor Prisoners Do in Cities

In a nationwide prison strike, the U.S.’s incarcerated population is demanding better wages and an end to “slave labor.”
Inmates holding a fire line during a burn out operation in Big Sur, California, December 2013.
Inmates holding a fire line during a burn out operation in Big Sur, California, December 2013.Michael Fiala/Reuters

When fire leapt up the walls of Mendocino houses, a team of prisoners from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation fended it off. When a blizzard turned Boston into a blanket of impenetrable snow in 2015, a squad of prisoners from the Suffolk County jail shoveled it. When a historic African-American cemetery in Baltimore fell into disrepair, it was inmates nearing release from the Maryland state prison system that rescued it. In cities across the country, it’s the incarcerated who are doing some of the invisible labor of keeping them running, often for little or no pay.

Prisoners are fed up, and rising up. Last week, prisoners launched a nationwide prison strike, building from momentum that started in April after guards avoided intervening in a riot in a South Carolina prison that resulted in the deaths of seven inmates. From August 21 to September 9, incarcerated people in county jails and federal prisons across the country are engaging in non-violent civic disobedience, and refusing to show up to their work stations. In Takoma, Washington; Sacramento, California; Toledo, Ohio; and Wabash Valley, Indiana, prisoners are on hunger strike.