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Prisoners Organize Countrywide Strike To Demand Better Working, Living Conditions


Tens of thousands of prisoners staged a coordinated strike at prisons around the country last month to protest working conditions. Corrections officers in Alabama joined the strike by not showing up to work. The strike was timed to mark the 45th anniversary of the riot at Attica Prison in New York state. Beth Schwartzapfel has been covering the strike. She's a reporter with The Marshall Project and joins us now. Thanks so much for being with us.

BETH SCHWARTZAPFEL: Thanks for having me.

SIMON: Was there a list of demands?

SCHWARTZAPFEL: There wasn't any one coordinated list of demand. Many of them had a lot in common. And, truthfully, very few of them had a lot to do with labor conditions. Some of them did ask to be fairly compensated for their labor.

But a lot of them asked for much more basic things, humane living conditions - a balanced and proper diet is a phrase that came up a lot. They asked for rehabilitation programs, GED programs - just, generally, demands that, in their mind, would make prison more rehabilitative and more humane.

SIMON: Is there any any way of gauging the effectiveness of the strike?

SCHWARTZAPFEL: Well, I guess it depends on what you mean by effectiveness. I don't think that any of the states are going to start conceding to any of these demands. In fact, several of the spokespeople that I spoke with had not even - or, at least, didn't admit that they had seen the demands. Several places said, you know, strike? What strike? I don't know what you're talking about.

That said, I do think that word got out in a pretty big way about this strike. And so if the aim was to sort of spread the word about prison labor and about living and working conditions in prison, I do think that they accomplished that aim.

SIMON: Public opinion polls obviously wax and wane. But as a generalization, the American public might say, oh, that's regrettable. But they're usually not in favor of increasing possibilities and certainly not spending for people who are in prison. I wonder if the prisoners are aware of that and think there's something that can be done about affecting public opinion.

SCHWARTZAPFEL: Well, when you ask the prisoners, you know, what do you say to people who say, look, you did the crime, you do the time, usually, what people say is, look, we're going to come home eventually.

We would like to come home as productive citizens who are educated, who can get a job, who can pay taxes. We would like to not have our families have to go on welfare while we're inside because I'm not making any money, and I can't help support them.

Generally, when you're talking about spending money on prisoners, it's usually an investment because that's money that, on the other side, when people come out, you're going to save when they don't get rearrested, when they're able to get a good-paying job and pay taxes and generally just reintegrate successfully back into society.

SIMON: Do you know of any other plans for any other concerted labor actions?

SCHWARTZAPFEL: Most of the prisoners I spoke to said that this was the first of what they hoped would be many, many actions in the future. This strike lasted, in many places, just one day - in several other places, a week or two.

But even as it sort of winds down, I think that organizing it created this network among people in prisons in a dozen or even more states. And my sense is that now that that network is built, they plan to use it again.

SIMON: Beth Schwartzapfel is a reporter with The Marshall Project. Thanks so much for being with us.

SCHWARTZAPFEL: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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