Texas has the largest prison population in the country, with over 172,000 people serving prison sentences. Those prisoners make up a substantial workforce in the state, contributing to the production of everything from mattresses to bacon. It's an industry that has been valued at nearly $2 billion a year. But inmates make only pennies an hour in return.
Prisoners are saying they've had enough. Earlier this week prisoners at seven state correctional facilities have refused to leave their cells or participate in work programs, citing the need for a better work environment. Alice Speri, who writes for the Intercept, says that prisoners in Texas face worse conditions than elsewhere in the country.
"It's really a countrywide problem, but Texas is particularly bad when it comes the to conditions of prisoners' labor," Speri says. "In fact, most states' prisoners are paid just a few cents an hour. Most prisoners in Texas state prisons are not paid at all for their labor."
Prisoners have made efforts to organize before, Speri says, but this is one of the biggest pushes for reform yet. It's catching on elsewhere, too.
"As you imagine, organizing prisoners is quite difficult," Speri says. "This strike, which started on Monday and will continue indefinitely, is really one of the biggest efforts we've seen so far. And it’s actually starting to spread outside of Texas to other southern states."
Prisoners are refusing to leave their cells, saying that they are more or less enslaved by the prisons, forced to do work for no compensation. The protest has led to lock-downs in the facilities, but prisoners are still able to organize and communicate.
"One of the things I found most surprising is that there's actually a pretty well-developed network of prisoners who are communicating with the outside and also communicating with each other," Speri says.
But participating in these strikes is risky for inmates – those who join the strikes are "likely" to face disciplinary repercussions, Speri says. Some may get solitary confinement, or administrative segregation as it's called.
"Particularly, the ones that are found to be organizing these efforts will face the consequences," she says. "Organizers of these strikes want them to be peaceful, of course, but in the past there have been confrontations and they have turned violent as well."