‘The Bodies of Prisoners Are Commodities’
Janine Jackson interviewed Noel Hanrahan on the national prison strike for the September 16, 2016, episode of CounterSpin. This is a lightly edited transcript.
Janine Jackson: Thousands of prisoners in some 24 states engaged in a work strike September 9, protesting their forced labor for no or little pay, along with a number of other dangerous and unhealthy conditions and practices that confront the more than 2 million people incarcerated in the United States.
Corporate media could barely have shown less interest. One CBS report, an AP story, and some local accounts in Florida and Alabama were about it, as we tape on September 15. The US, we are told, is engaged in a newly serious conversation about mass incarceration. Leave it to elite media to think they can host that conversation without talking to incarcerated people.
Joining us to talk about the strike and the issues behind it is Noelle Hanrahan. She’s an investigative journalist, a private investigator, and the director of the multimedia production studio Prison Radio. She joins us by phone from Philadelphia. Welcome back to CounterSpin, Noelle Hanrahan.
Noelle Hanrahan: Thank you for having me.
JJ: Invoking slavery to describe prison labor, as we’ve heard some inmate organizers do, is not metaphor, really. The 13th Amendment outlawed slavery in 1865 “except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.” What are some of the work conditions and other conditions that striking prisoners were hoping to direct attention to?
NH: I think we really have to realize that all of the prison systems in this country are based on prison labor. They couldn’t run without the prisoners. So 98 percent of all the work done to maintain these extensive housing projects, this vast amount of public housing, really, is done by prisoners. And that’s the main work. There are other companies that come in and use workers, but it’s not the main problem. The main problem is the warehousing of a workforce.
So people are targeted for mass incarceration in this country like no other country in the world. One in 99 people are in prison, one in 46 people will do prison time, and if you add in race, one in three black men will do prison time.
So the economy is targeting people by race, by class and by place. What they need, humanely: educational resources, work, jobs and a society that provides for everybody.
JJ: It’s interesting that you’re talking about the prison as an economy, which is certainly the frame of this strike, but I think it may be a new way of seeing it for some people. The Free Alabama Movement is key here as prison organizers. And the co-founder, Kinetic Justice, made exactly this point; he said, we tried petitioning the courts, we tried appealing to legislatures about our conditions.
We wrote letters, we did all of that with the political process, and it didn’t work. And we realized that this is an economic enterprise, and so now we’re organizing around our labor.
NH: There are two ways of looking at it. One is, say if you’re outside of prisons. Every single budget decision in local, state, county, federal–is based almost entirely on what we’re spending for our prisons. We make a choice, we’re spending money on prisons and warehousing people or preschools. I mean, the same could be said about war as well. But these are two huge ticket items.
Now, the other thing is, inside prisons, there’s a vast amount of people, millions, 2 million, including all the people in city jails and county jails. We’re talking about in a place where people are oppressed and that the conditions that they suffer are extreme and are very biased, very, very, very akin to slavery. If people refuse to go to work, if they refuse to get in line, if they refuse to do the simplest things, they are often brutalized in the extreme, and they are often put in isolation and control units and the hole. Almost every single institution in the United States has a segregation unit that is used as a punishment unit. They use calorie reduction. Many of the hunger strikes that we’ve seen, in some of the other protests that we’ve seen, were based on penalties for limited calories, that they were actually taking people’s food and visits and clothing.
JJ: And you’re making the point that it’s an economic issue inside the prison and also an economic issue for the local area in which that prison is situated.
NH: The bodies of prisoners are commodities, and we can see this in a number of ways. When upstate or rural areas have prisons situated in them, they get added representation, added congresspeople. Now, the prisoners are barred from voting, but the communities where those prisoners are warehoused and stored have added representation. So that’s just one clear example of how they commodify bodies of prisoners.
JJ: I did want to note this one report on CBS MoneyWatch by Aimee Picchi, which was substantive, and there were, as I say, a few other pieces. But really if people heard about this story, they heard about it from people communicating outside of and around the corporate media. And I guess I find that both frustrating and hopeful. You have been doing work around this set of issues for many years now. Do you see improvement or change in media’s attention to the rights of the incarcerated?
NH: I think that the issue is so dominant within the culture because there are so many people who are incarcerated, you really can’t not see it. Then also, internationally, we’re so out of step. I mean, it’s really unprecedented worldwide, the kind of incarceration that we have. Nobody else does it this way.
And also in the past 30 to 40 years, we’ve experienced an incarceration boom. Now, in fact, many of these policies are criminogenic–they create crime. So it’s really a vicious cycle that we have to get out of.
And I think what we need more of, is we need more of a bright, white-hot spotlight shined on these issues, and we have been missing that from the press, because of, probably, the destruction of investigative newsrooms. And also courageous legislators. I went to get a master’s in criminal justice at Boston University, because I was so distressed at the trajectory of what was happening, and in those courses we never once studied anything outside of the US; it was all about fixing this broken system. And I think we have to actually look around, because no one, no one does it like this. We have more violence and we have more crime, and we have the highest per capita imprisonment population in the world.
And we need a trend toward abolition. We need a trend toward restorative justice. This trend that we’ve been experiencing for the last 40 years has to go dramatically in the reverse for the health of the society.
JJ: The strike didn’t just bubble up, of course; it was organized over a period of time. There have been written-down calls to action from various groups, model legislation, as we say; it was scheduled for the 45th anniversary of the Attica uprising. We can expect to see more of this kind of action, do you think, from prisoners?
NH: Where you oppress people and where there’s bias and behavior that’s fundamentally immoral, where there’s a lack of healthcare, where there are people dying in infirmaries in prison, you’re going to see resistance. And you’re going to see people really taking steps to further their own human dignity and express themselves. So this is not going to stop. It’s going to be led by the inside; people inside prison are going to lead this. And it’s been going all the way across the country. I mean, it’s been happening all over. We saw the hunger strikes in California, we saw strikes in Ohio, we saw strikes in Wisconsin.
It is not going to stop, because people will demand their freedom.
JJ: We’ve been speaking with Noelle Hanrahan. Noelle Hanrahan, thank you so much for joining us this week on CounterSpin.
NH: Thank you.
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According to Grasswire, a collection of prison labor statistics listed on Prison Policy Initiative show that the lowest daily wage for a prisoner working in the private industry is $0.16, while other states do not pay their inmates at all. The statistics also show that county facilities do not offer paid work, but they offer work to inmates awaiting trial.
According to a report by The Intercept, prisoners in 24 states pledged to join the protest, and inmates in at least 11 states were striking as of early last week.
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Although information coming out of the prisons has been limited, word of riots and inmate takeovers has been released by officials. Inmates at Kinross Correctional Facility set fire to the dormitories, leaving two housing units unlivable.
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