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Inmates in 17 states are striking against "slavery"

Prisoners
Lakeview Shock Incarceration Correctional Facility in New York. Photo: Andrew Lichtenstein/Getty Images

For the second day, inmates in 17 states are on strike for, among other demands, higher wages at commercial jobs that often pay them less than $1 an hour and, when they are released, do not lead to employment.

Among these jobs: firefighting. More than 2,000 inmates are battling California's wildfires, but the likelihood is that none with a felony record will manage to obtain a firefighting job on release from prison, despite their experience, mainly because of licensing rules.

Why it matters: For-profit companies hire inmates at rates far below minimum wage and manufacture goods at low cost, said Brianna Peril, founder of the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee. Rival "businesses can't compete with that," Peril tells Axios.

By the numbers: Nearly 700,000 prisoners have daily jobs through federal correctional programs like Unicor, which made $453.8 million in sales last year, and many work for for-profit companies like McDonalds, Whole Foods and Walmart.

  • The average inmate worker makes 63 cents an hour working non-industry jobs.
  • Industry jobs at state owned businesses pay an average of $1.41.

Finding work: A sore point among the strikers is the difficulty transitioning back into society after release despite their work experience. Just 55% of inmates reported any earnings in the first year after release, with the median at slightly over $10,000, according to data from the Brookings Institution.

  • This in part is what leads some to call the labor situation "modern-day slavery."
  • African Americans are 13% of the total U.S. population, but 40% of the country's prisoners.
QuoteIt's slavery. I can't go get a job for a dollar and make a living.
— Peril

The big picture: People are unable to sympathize with prisoners, but they might understand if they look at the situation as economics, Peril said.

Often, after working for years as prisoners, convicts are given a small home-plan package of as much as $50 dollars and a bus ticket without having a place to stay, or a job. Because of that, Peril said, they often end up back in prison.

Their demands: Jailhouse Lawyers Speak says the inmates have planned work stoppages, sit-ins, and hunger strikes, and demand:

  • Higher wages and job rights on release
  • Restoration of voting rights for felony convicts
  • A better channel to hear grievances
  • Abolishment of the death penalty

"They're pretty mild and reformist demands," Peril said. "But we're trying to restore their humanity. That's not asking much."