Thousands of Florida prisoners plan work stoppage to protest lack of wages

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Prisoners in Florida are planning a strike set to begin Jan. 15 to demand payment for their work, the reestablishment of parole, and fairer prices for goods sold within prisons.

An anonymous group of Florida prisoners released a statement Dec. 5 through a Florida-based prisoner support group, announcing a planned work stoppage set to begin Jan. 15 on Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

Based on communications received from incarcerated people in Florida, activists estimate that the group of prisoners represented in the statement are located in at least eight prisons across the state, and may number in the thousands.

Prisoners are calling the movement Operation PUSH, and have identified three main goals of the strike: payment for labor, reducing the prices at prison stores, and reintroducing parole as an incentive. They also seek an end to overcrowding, violence by prison guards, poor environmental conditions, state executions, and the loss of voting rights for convicted criminals.

The Florida Department of Corrections “will continue to ensure the safe operation of our correctional institutions,” a spokesperson for the department said, without directly addressing the planned strike.

The main goal of the protest, prisoners say, is payment for the work they do while incarcerated. Most prison maintenance jobs in Florida, like cooking and cleaning, are completely unpaid. (Nationally, average wages range from $0.14 to $0.63 per hour.) Jobs with outside companies that contract prison labor pay $0.20 to $0.55 per hour. (The national range is $0.33 to $1.41.)

“With even a modest amount of payment we will be able to save up something to survive outside with; for those with lengthy sentences, they would be able to support themselves inside,” prisoners wrote. They added that due to the difficulty of finding a job after being released, it’s important to be able to save something up while working in prison.

The protest plan is for Florida prisoners to stop doing the day-to-day maintenance of prisons — for which they aren’t being paid — for at least a month, in order to disrupt normal prison operations.

“Our goal is to make the governor realize that it will cost the state of Florida millions of dollars daily to contract outside companies to come and cook, clean, and handle the maintenance. This will cause a total break down,” the statement reads.

Another reason prisoners are pushing for fair wages is that prices in prison commissaries are higher than market value. Prison stores are often controlled by private companies, which can hike up prices, meaning prisoners and their families have to pay more. Meanwhile, family and friends who send money to prisoners are charged exorbitant fees of up to 45 percent.

The strike’s second major goal is to restore parole to Florida prisoners. The state of Florida gives prisoners time off their sentences for good behavior and for completing their work assignments. However, prisoners say they should be paid instead of prisons “taking something we’ve earned away and using it against us to restructure new release dates.”

In addition, for prisoners with life sentences, the lack of parole means that no matter how hard they work, they have no chance of getting out of prison. Florida has almost entirely eliminated parole; only 0.1 percent of inmates released annually in the state are paroled.

In September 2016, hundreds of Florida prisoners joined a nationwide prison strike. These strikes, which were overwhelmingly nonviolent, still led to brutal repression of prisoners. Media coverage of the strike focused more on the few incidences of violence and minor property damage than the demands of strikers.

Then, in August 2017, Florida prisons went on a weekend-long statewide lockdown — the first such lockdown in decades — following unspecified reports from the state Department of Corrections that inmates had planned some form of “disruptions.” This time, prisoners hope to avoid giving prison officials any excuse for retaliation.

“The way to strike back is not with violence as this is what they want,” the statement reads. “If we show them violence they will have a legitimate excuse to use brute force against us and explain to the public that they had to use brute force in order to contain the situation. However, their weakness is their wallet.”

In addition to their main demands, prisoners have expressed support for the goals of improving prison conditions by putting an end to violence by prison guards, addressing environmental hazards, and reducing overcrowding.

Investigations by the Miami Herald have revealed extensive abuse of prisoners in Florida, including a man who was locked in a scalding hot shower until he died, a man who was gassed to death while pleading for his life, and widespread sexual violence and excessive force against juvenile detainees.

In addition, at least 589 state and federal prisons are located within three miles of a Superfund site contaminated by toxic waste. Prison infrastructure itself can also present health hazards to inmates. Dozens of prisons have been found to have sewage and sanitation violations, and in the past five years the Environmental Protection Agency has brought thousands of informal enforcement actions against prisons for clean drinking water issues.

Prison overcrowding is also a widespread problem in the U.S. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, as of Dec. 31, 2015, 18 states and the Federal Bureau of Prisons had more people in prison than their facilities were designed to hold. Fifteen other states, including Florida, operated their prisons at over 90 percent capacity.

“Our intentions are to have a peaceful demonstration and simply refuse to work, and buy canteen, visitation, and phones. Use our economical power,” said one of the prison strike organizers. “Boycotting them may temporarily seem like creating burdens for ourselves, but that sacrifice now is worth having a better tomorrow.”