September 6, 2018 / 7:53 PM / 16 days ago

Commentary: The real reason prisoners are striking

The prison strike that began on August 21 and is scheduled to last until September 9 is expected to involve inmate workers from at least 17 states and may be the biggest prison work stoppage in history.

Prison inmates wearing firefighting boots line up for breakfast at Oak Glen Conservation Fire Camp #35 in Yucaipa, California November 6, 2014. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson

Debates over prison labor usually hover around wages and invite comparisons to slavery because an inmate worker makes an average of 86 cents per hour. But wages aren’t at the top of the list of 10 demands issued by the organizers of the strike. The first demand is an improvement in conditions because prison labor – and prison life in general – can be downright dangerous, even deadly.

Since it was created almost 40 years ago, the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) has prevented millions of injuries and deaths under the principle that the “right to a safe workplace is a basic human right.

Those rights don’t seem to exist for incarcerated persons, though, since OSHA doesn’t oversee inmate workplaces. Section 3 of the act establishing the agency excludes prisoners from the definition of worker. OSHA has no jurisdiction over the workplace conditions of the 900,000 inmate laborers in the country. One of the most dehumanizing parts of prison is the fact that, by law, what inmates do isn’t even considered legitimate work.

The lack of oversight has become dangerous. While we don’t know the numbers of prisoners who are injured at work (OSHA maintains that data on employees only), we do have stories about allegations of substandard care and dangerous working conditions.

In one case, a Georgia man who lost his leg after a fall in a prison kitchen won $550,000 from the state after claiming that a prison doctor neglected his injury. Other inmates have lost thumbs and fingers when they were caught in machinery. In Pueblo, Colorado, a female inmate, Kara Fuelling, was almost decapitated while working in a saw mill when a blade tore through her helmet. In California, two inmates conscripted into firefighting detail through the state Department of Corrections lost their lives. In Georgia, just this past May, a prisoner on work detail was killed by a distracted driver passing the highway work site.

Although it could be argued that these injuries and deaths can happen anywhere, the difference is that workplaces outside of prison have some safety oversight and with it, a higher standard of care. If prisons had to comply with OSHA standards, these injuries and deaths may have been prevented.

Prison inmates lay water pipe on a work project outside Oak Glen Conservation Fire Camp #35 in Yucaipa, California November 6, 2014. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson

Inmate injuries are worthy of even more preventive oversight when you consider that medical care can be substandard in many correctional facilities. The Georgia inmate who lost his leg initially sustained only a dime-sized cut above his ankle, but evidence in the lawsuit indicated that a lack of care worsened his injury to the point that he had to sacrifice a limb. Kara Fuelling, the saw mill worker, wasn’t brought to an emergency room but was rather transported to the prison infirmary. According to Fuelling’s lawsuit, a doctor who examined her was concerned about possible infection because the saw blade was dirty; she went on to develop an antibiotic-resistant MRSA infection.

Many of these injuries are caused by equipment that, according to a report in the University of Pennsylvania Journal of Business and Employment Law, was known to be faulty or defective.

Even when inmates are hurt because the correctional facility is negligent, there’s little to no recourse for incarcerated workers when they are injured. This is mostly because occupational statutes in 43 states exclude incarcerated workers from the definition of employees, and thereby don’t allow those workers to file worker compensation claims.

This is much more a problem for inmates than it is for the prisons themselves. In all of the litigation over prison work injuries, only a handful of courts have said that dangerous conditions violate the Constitution’s Eighth Amendment prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment.

Because there’s little-to-no liability for the facilities, danger abounds in American prisons. One of the motivating factors for the current strike is the April riot at Lee Correctional Center in South Carolina, where seven prisoners were killed. Initially, prison officials blamed the deaths on gang disputes and the use of contraband cellphones. But as more eyewitness accounts became available, the Lee riot was revealed to have taken place in a “gladiator school” where guards had reportedly abandoned their posts. One inmate said that there were no immediate deaths from the violence within the facility. The people who died were allowed to bleed out, he said, as guards looked on.

Strikes like the current one are necessary to change safety conditions in prisons because the usual avenues of remedy – grievance procedures and courts – have been blocked off by an erosion in human rights standards when it comes to people who have been convicted of breaking the law.

Many people may be horrified by the way incarcerated people are treated, but disagree with the tactic of a strike where the risk of injury goes up even further as strikers are dragged to solitary confinement and disciplined in other ways.

But there is no other way. Courts and administrative remedies have failed to protect imprisoned people. While incarcerated we witnessed many inmates who came to expect injuries, accidents and even death. Such an expectation of punishment seems medieval, but prisoners are taking a stand to show that it is, unfortunately, still a modern phenomenon.

About the Author

Chandra Bozelko is the Vice President of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists and won a Webby Award for her blog, Prison Diaries. Ryan Lo is a 2016 Soros Senior Justice Fellow and the founder of UnLabeled Digital Media, a production company that employs systems-impacted individuals. Both are formerly incarcerated. @aprisondiary @4RyanLo

The views expressed in this article are not those of Reuters News.

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