Dhaka, Bangladesh
The real reason prisoners are striking

The real reason prisoners are striking

Writes Ryan Lo

The prison strike that began on August 21 and is
scheduled to last until September 9 is expected to
involve inmate workers from at least 17 states and
may be the biggest prison work stoppage in history.
Debates over prison labor usually hover around wages
and invite comparisons to slavery because an inmate
worker makes an average of 86 cents per hour. But
wages aren’t at the top of the list of 10 demands
issued by the organizers of the strike. The first
demand is an improvement in conditions because prison
labor – and prison life in general – can be downright
dangerous, even deadly.
Since it was created almost 40 years ago, the
Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA)
has prevented millions of injuries and deaths under
the principle that the “right to a safe workplace is
a basic human right.”
Those rights don’t seem to exist for incarcerated
persons, though, since OSHA doesn’t oversee inmate
workplaces. Section 3 of the act establishing the
agency excludes prisoners from the definition of
worker. OSHA has no jurisdiction over the workplace
conditions of the 900,000 inmate laborers in the
country. One of the most dehumanizing parts of prison
is the fact that, by law, what inmates do isn’t even
considered legitimate work.
The lack of oversight has become dangerous. While we
don’t know the numbers of prisoners who are injured
at work (OSHA maintains that data on employees only),
we do have stories about allegations of substandard
care and dangerous working conditions.
In one case, a Georgia man who lost his leg after a
fall in a prison kitchen won $550,000 from the state
after claiming that a prison doctor neglected his
injury. Other inmates have lost thumbs and fingers
when they were caught in machinery. In Pueblo,
Colorado, a female inmate, Kara Fuelling, was almost
decapitated while working in a saw mill when a blade
tore through her helmet. In California, two inmates
conscripted into firefighting detail through the
state Department of Corrections lost their lives. In
Georgia, just this past May, a prisoner on work
detail was killed by a distracted driver passing the
highway work site.
Although it could be argued that these injuries and
deaths can happen anywhere, the difference is that
workplaces outside of prison have some safety
oversight and with it, a higher standard of care. If
prisons had to comply with OSHA standards, these
injuries and deaths may have been prevented.
Prison inmates lay water pipe on a work project
outside Oak Glen Conservation Fire Camp #35 in
Yucaipa, California November 6, 2014. REUTERS/Lucy
Inmate injuries are worthy of even more preventive
oversight when you consider that medical care can be
substandard in many correctional facilities. The
Georgia inmate who lost his leg initially sustained
only a dime-sized cut above his ankle, but evidence
in the lawsuit indicated that a lack of care worsened
his injury to the point that he had to sacrifice a
limb. Kara Fuelling, the saw mill worker, wasn’t
brought to an emergency room but was rather
transported to the prison infirmary. According to
Fuelling’s lawsuit, a doctor who examined her was
concerned about possible infection because the saw
blade was dirty; she went on to develop an
antibiotic-resistant MRSA infection.
Many of these injuries are caused by equipment that,
according to a report in the University of
Pennsylvania Journal of Business and Employment Law,
was known to be faulty or defective.
Even when inmates are hurt because the correctional
facility is negligent, there’s little to no recourse
for incarcerated workers when they are injured. This
is mostly because occupational statutes in 43 states
exclude incarcerated workers from the definition of
employees, and thereby don’t allow those workers to
file worker compensation claims.
This is much more a problem for inmates than it is
for the prisons themselves. In all of the litigation
over prison work injuries, only a handful of courts
have said that dangerous conditions violate the
Constitution’s Eighth Amendment prohibition on cruel
and unusual punishment.
Because there’s little-to-no liability for the
facilities, danger abounds in American prisons. One
of the motivating factors for the current strike is
the April riot at Lee Correctional Center in South
Carolina, where seven prisoners were killed.
Initially, prison officials blamed the deaths on gang
disputes and the use of contraband cellphones. But as
more eyewitness accounts became available, the Lee
riot was revealed to have taken place in a “gladiator
school” where guards had reportedly abandoned their
posts. One inmate said that there were no immediate
deaths from the violence within the facility. The
people who died were allowed to bleed out, he said,
as guards looked on.
Strikes like the current one are necessary to change
safety conditions in prisons because the usual
avenues of remedy – grievance procedures and courts –
have been blocked off by an erosion in human rights
standards when it comes to people who have been
convicted of breaking the law.
Many people may be horrified by the way incarcerated
people are treated, but disagree with the tactic of a
strike where the risk of injury goes up even further
as strikers are dragged to solitary confinement and
disciplined in other ways.
But there is no other way. Courts and administrative
remedies have failed to protect imprisoned people.
While incarcerated we witnessed many inmates who came
to expect injuries, accidents and even death. Such an
expectation of punishment seems medieval, but
prisoners are taking a stand to show that it is,
unfortunately, still a modern phenomenon.

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