After The Strike: Here Is How Prison Reform Is Showing Up In The Midterm Elections
Here's how some states are pushing to reform the prison system in the 2018 midterms.
Earlier this year, incarcerated prisoners spanning approximately 17 states went on strike, which inevitably gained nationwide attention. Using prison newspapers, union spokespeople and contraband cell phones, they attempted to get the word out about the inhumane conditions and forced slave labor. Allegedly, the strike was partially in response to the riots in Lee Correctional Institution, a maximum security prison in South Carolina, in which prisoners rebelled in order to draw attention to their horrible living and working conditions, as well as their use as low-paid laborers. However, the lack of progress toward prison reform appears to be the ultimate reason behind why prisoners felt compelled to take such action.
Products made as a result of prison labor are more prevalent in the everyday lives of Americans than people realize — from license plates to lingerie. Prisoners have even been recruited to put out wildfires. However, most are paid less than $5 a day. Since a lot of prisons are privately owned or they are invested in by corporations or state governments, many of them do not fully consider the conditions that prisoners are expected to survive in. As long as they are fulfilling the demands for products, almost everything that goes on within these walls is deemed acceptable. Because the plight of prisoners is often shielded from the public-eye, society seems less compelled to help change that which they cannot see. But this does not excuse the need for reform.
While organizing the strike, prisoners shared a list of 10 demands that catered to this issue — from the end of “prison slavery,” to voting rights, to the establishment of “immediate improvement to the conditions of prisons." These demands provided clear-cut documentation of what those in prison need from their government.
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According to the 10th demand, “The voting rights of all confined citizens serving prison sentences, pretrial detainees, and so-called ‘ex-felons’ must be counted. Representation is demanded. All voices count.” If those currently incarcerated and formerly incarcerated aren’t allowed to vote, then how can they make sure that political candidates address issues that are key to them? With voting power, political candidates and states are more likely to work to gain their support — especially if it means accessing support from a voting bloc that includes over six million people with prior felony convictions.
Florida has moved to take action in restoring these voter rights, by proposing a ballot initiative that would allow these formerly incarcerated citizens the right to vote, if their felony charges don't entail convictions for murder or sexual offenses. If not passed, Florida, like many other states, will continue to hold those who were once imprisoned back from taking ownership of their lives. And until they gain the right to vote, those in prison will have to rely on civilians, community organizers and politicians to fight for them.
Reform Jails L.A. Chair and Black Lives Matter Co-founder Patrisse Cullors has been fighting for those incarcerated in California by proposing the Reform Jails and Community Reinvestment Initiative. This initiative seeks to give the Sheriff Civilian Oversight Commission the ability to subpoena for any information and documents needed in investigations regarding misconduct in Los Angeles jails, after a growing number of deaths occurred in prison at the hands of prison guards. Giving the Sheriff Civilian Oversight Commission this level of power would bring a sense of accountability to the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department for the violence precipitated by prison guards. Though the initiative has since been pushed from this midterm to instead appear on California’s ballot in 2020, the measure would still push one of the demands from the prison strike forward, by opening a channel for those in prison to “address grievances and violations of their rights.” If passed, those who are currently incarcerated would have a space to express themselves about any harmful actions exercised toward them without fear of retaliation or a loss of privileges.
Colorado is also including an initiative on its ballot, which addresses another demand from the prison strike: The abolishment of prison slavery. Amendment A proposes rewording Colorado's Constitution to not allow slavery, regardless of whether it is a punishment of a crime or not. The purpose of the amendment is to change the language in a way that sends a message statewide that prison slavery would not be tolerated. Although the wording in the Constitution would be subject to change, it wouldn't necessarily change anything about how those who are imprisoned are subjected to manual labor for little wages.
This will be the second time this initiative has appeared on Colorado ballots, after its initial wording wasn’t clear. If passed, Colorado would join the other states that have already reworded their Constitutions, in terms of how prison slavery is addressed — something that still needs to be done to the 13th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
While some states are making the conscientious effort to include the demands of prisoners in political conversations as activist organizations continue to fight for prison reform, many candidates that are running for office in the 2018 midterms have not included concerns pertaining to prison reform within their campaign platforms. It seems as though the number of actively campaigning individuals who want to speak up on behalf of those with a history of incarceration are few and far between.
One of the few candidates speaking out about prison reform is Rob Richardson, the Democratic candidate for state treasurer in Ohio. He is also the only Black candidate in the state’s race. While it is unusual to see a state treasurer — of all political positions of power — attempt to tackle prison reform, it may provide the edge in Richardson's campaign that could lead him to victory, as his plan for prison reform would be critical to the state’s financial and political structure. Richardson has boldly proclaimed that if elected as state treasurer, he would use his position to divest taxpayer money from for-profit private prisons.
Ohio has one of the largest prison populations in the United States. Two of its largest for-profit private prison companies, CoreCivic and The GEO Group, are invested in by the state’s pension plans, leaving taxpayer money to be used for the prison operation and maintenance costs that are contributing to poor quality conditions in the prison system. The Office of the Ohio Treasurer not only handles the money coming from pension plans, but it is required by state law to have representation on the pension boards. Although Ohio's treasury doesn’t have the jurisdiction to directly divest the funds from the pensions, Richardson still banks on using the influence of the position to provide alternative and more secure investments other than for-profit prisons.
Punishment of a crime should not include slavery or any other form of powerlessness that can strip away fundamental aspects of basic human dignity and rights. Perhaps the reason why prison reform has been such a difficult issue to tackle is because those who'd be most impacted by related legislation are often left out of the political sphere, since they are ineligible to vote. Despite often going unseen, the prison strike showed us how powerful incarcerated individuals are when they collectively raise their voices together. Imagine how much more change within the political system could occur, if they could participate as voters?
It is up to us as voters to use our rights to echo their demands, bring back their power, and show them more respect as members of our society.
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