About 30 people rallied outside the Durham County jail Wednesday night to protest mass incarceration and prison labor they said equals modern slavery.
A National Prison Strike set for Sept. 9 will mark the 45-year anniversary of the uprising at the Attica Correctional Facility in New York, in which 43 people died. Organizers are calling on prisoners in work programs not to work that day.
Speakers at Wednesday’s rally said the strike will call attention to prisoners, mostly black and Hispanic, who work for little pay across the United States. The system benefits corporations that rely on the prisoners for cheap labor, they said.
“Much of the products we buy every day from many organizations come from prison labor,” said Joe Stapleton of the Triangle chapter of the International Workers of the World, one of the rally organizers.
“These prisoners are forced against their will for almost no pay,” he said. “This is really the definition of slavery, and we think that this is wrong.”
The Durham protest comes amid increased attention to incarceration in the United States.
▪ The U.S. has 4.4 percent of the world’s population but 22 percent of its prisoners, The Washington Post and other sources have reported.
▪ The U.S has the world’s highest incarceration rate, 716 prisoners per 100,000 people, though critics say China and other countries may not accurately report their prisoner totals.
▪ According to the U.S. Department of Justice, non-Hispanic blacks make up about 13 percent of the U.S. population but 40 percent of its prisoners.
The president and those who would succeed him are talking about prisons, too.
President Barack Obama this year became the first sitting president to visit a prison. Democrat Hillary Clinton says a 1994 “three strikes” crime bill she supported exacerbated incarceration rates. Republican Donald Trump says private prisons, which Clinton wants to end, “seem to work a lot better” than government-run prisons.
As inmates banged windows from the Durham County jail and motorists drove past, speakers at Wednesday’s rally said it’s time to overhaul the nation’s prisons.
“The mass incarceration of mainly working-class black, people of color and the poor is part of the race and class divide of the capitalist system,” said labor organizer Darrion Smith of United Electrical Local 150, part of the N.C. Public Service Workers Union. “We must demand human rights for the incarcerated, the release of prisoners for petty crimes.”
The Durham jail has also been under pressure. The Inside-Outside Alliance, a group of inmates’ family members and others, has protested limits on inmates’ times outside their cells, overall living conditions at the jail and three inmate deaths in recent years.
Stapleton said 50 to 60 inmates, about 10 percent of its population, who work in laundry, food service and cleaning “aren’t paid anything.”
A spokeswoman for the Durham County Sheriff’s Office confirmed that figure but said inmates are compensated in two ways: with incentive meals or sentence credits. State law requires detainees get four days off their sentence for every 30 days they volunteer on work detail, she said.
A fact sheet the sheriff’s office provided Thursday also said inmates who work for jail contractor Aramark “do so on a volunteer basis.”
“The detainees are neither coerced nor forced to volunteer for the positions,” it said. “Some detainees volunteer in the Work Detail program which helps to maintain the facility. These detainees help to provide janitorial, kitchen, laundry, and painting services. Durham County pays for weekly incentive meals for our Work Detail detainees. These meals can consist of fresh coffee, fried chicken, buffalo wings, pizza, and beverages.”
Wednesday’s rally was peaceful, with protesters standing and holding large banners on the sidewalk outside the jail. At one point two police officers approached and one asked speaker Greg Williams to move out of the street. Williams said he told the officer he respected his opinion but that he wasn’t blocking traffic, and the officers left.
Mark Schultz: 919-829-8950