As students were just getting back into their school routines, inmates in at least 17 states were organizing a nationwide prison strike. Our two worlds — those of students and of prisoners — don’t often appear connected. But students should really be paying attention to how the strike will play out.
It’s no secret that the U.S. prison system is in dire need of reform, but the April riots at Lee Correctional Institution in South Carolina really highlighted just how inhumane the system is. Conflicts between inmates resulted in the deaths of seven prisoners and left 17 others with injuries. It took hours for “response teams” to intervene, and one prisoner said he thought that inmate lives could have been saved if officials had provided timely medical assistance.
This was a catalyst for the organizing of the prison strike. The group Jailhouse Lawyers Speak said in a statement that the events at Lee were a result of overcrowding “from the greed wrought by mass incarceration, and a lack of respect for human life that is embedded in our nation’s penal ideology.” The strikers crafted a list of demands that address the need for rehabilitation services, the lack of fair compensation to inmate workers and measures to reinstate inmates’ right to vote and the possibility of parole for all, among other demands. They also want to highlight the alarming occurrence of inmate deaths within prisons. To give a glimpse, 10 inmates have died in their cells in the past three weeks in Mississippi.
Looking at the list of demands is disturbing because they’re basic rights and needs that prisoners should already be entitled to. Asking for improvements to prison conditions, the end of “prison slavery” — a term that refers to inmates who work but often get paid mere cents per hour — and services including rehabilitation and a channel to express grievances and violations of inmates’ rights are basic steps to treat those who are incarcerated with respect. People often forget that prisoners are still human and that the main function of a prison should not be to punish, but to reform inmates so that they can re-enter society. The Federal Bureau of Prisons states that its mission is for prisons to be “safe, humane, cost-efficient, and appropriately secure” and to “provide work and other self-improvement opportunities to assist offenders in becoming law-abiding citizens.” Compare that mission to the actual state of U.S. prisons — they look nothing alike.
We all have different views on the law, but whether you believe in a strict penal code or a more lax interpretation, people in prison are already being punished. They are already taken from their homes, their families and their lives beyond bars. But breaking the law should not mean you’re subhuman. If we believe that prison should help inmates become “law-abiding citizens” as the Department of Justice claims, why aren’t they all given the possibility of parole? Why aren’t they given proper medical assistance or rehabilitation services? Why can’t they vote? We are denying prisoners the chance to make their lives better, and then we turn around and punish them for being angry and violent. Prisoners often act out because they know their lives won’t get better. As Jailhouse Lawyers put it, “For some of us it’s as if we are already dead. So what do we have to lose?”
People have a tendency to look down on prisoners, but this situation is about human rights. The rights of incarcerated humans, yes, but humans nonetheless. How can we hope to improve crime rates if the very place we send people for it is only causing them physical and mental pain, while fueling their resentment of society? After all, 76 percent of all inmates released from prison end up rearrested within five years. Clearly, our system does little to quell crime, and that is partly because our prisons ensure that prisoners will have few opportunities when they leave.
I stand in solidarity with the striking prisoners and I urge my peers to do the same. Students have historically participated in many landmark movements concerning human rights, so this is no different. What separates students from prisoners is simply that we haven’t been arrested and convicted of a crime — and that can easily change. This is what it all comes down to: Prisoners’ rights are human rights. Either you stand for human rights, or you don’t.
Sarah Molano is a senior double-majoring in English and philosophy, politics and law.