Why NELP Supports the #PrisonStrike

The National Employment Law Project (“NELP”) expresses solidarity with the incarcerated individuals and organizers striking across the country who are now entering their second week of protest. As an organization dedicated to protecting the rights of workers and those who aspire to work, and as an organization that has worked side-by-side with formerly incarcerated leaders in support of the “ban the box” movement, we are inspired by the prison strikers and their demand to be treated with dignity and respect that all people in this nation deserve.

As brought to life by the Equal Justice Initiative’s powerful new “Legacy Museum” in Montgomery, Alabama, the current era of mass incarceration is the direct result of the nation’s racist history of slavery, convict leasing, and lynchings, all of which are deeply rooted in the exploitation of Black workers. For example, when 10,000 Black sugar cane workers in Thibodaux, Louisiana, organized a three-week strike in 1887, white paramilitary forces massacred 50 strikers, leading to the disenfranchisement of Black workers and stalling for decades the efforts to organize sugar cane workers. Our nation’s labor laws also reflect the “echoes of slavery” to this day,  including the statutory exemptions of farm laborers and domestic workers from the right to organize.

The struggle to enforce labor protections is never easy for the nation’s most exploited workers—whether they be immigrant workers, workfare workers, or today’s “on-demand” gig workers. But the incarcerated leaders taking action today remind us that “prison work is work,” and that our nation’s labor and employment laws must guarantee all workers a prevailing wage, minimum wage and overtime, health and safety protections, and other fundamental labor rights. Indeed, this struggle is part of a broader fight. In defending the basic employment rights of prison laborers, we also hold the line to prevent exploitation of all workers, which is essential given the expansion of private prisons by Attorney General Jeff Sessions, the growth of private contractors handling immigrant detainees, and the reliance on “work release” prison workers in poultry and other industries.

As UCLA Law Professor Noah Zatz has chronicled, the fact is that labor and employment laws do protect people employed in many prison settings, as several courts have held over the years. For example, the Department of Labor has sanctioned private companies, like chemical plants, for violating the OSHA rights of prison work release workers. While some courts have rejected the legal complaints of workers employed in prison, others have permitted lawsuits against employers that sell their goods and services in the private market, as well as lawsuits against private prisons, like GEO and CoreCivic, Inc., that operate detention centers with the free labor of immigrants detained by ICE.

NELP stands in solidarity with the incarcerated people fighting for humane living conditions, access to rehabilitation, sentencing reform, and holding prisons and other employers accountable when it comes to honoring fundamental human rights embodied in our nation’s labor and employment laws, and to employing people in living wage jobs upon release from prison—especially when the employer has benefited directly from the individual’s labor while incarcerated.

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About the Author

Maurice Emsellem

Fair Chance Program Director, National Employment Law Project

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