The barbershop run by inmates at Stateville Correctional Center is one of the few vocational opportunities in IDOC. Credit: Frank Vaisvilas/Sun-Times

On August 21, incarcerated people in at least 17 different states launched a 19-day “strike” in response to an April riot at South Carolina’s Lee Correctional Institution that left seven inmates dead. Organized by a South Carolina-based group of incarcerated individuals calling themselves Jailhouse Lawyers Speak, the strike was rolled out with a list of ten demands challenging conditions of “modern day slavery” at state and federal jails and prisons and immigration detention centers. The demands, circulated on social media and endorsed by more than 150 allied groups, are as follows:

1. Immediate improvements to the conditions of prisons and prison policies that recognize the humanity of imprisoned men and women.

2. An immediate end to prison slavery. All persons imprisoned in any place of detention under United States jurisdiction must be paid the prevailing wage in their state or territory for their labor.

3. The Prison Litigation Reform Act must be rescinded, allowing imprisoned humans a proper channel to address grievances and violations of their rights.

4. The Truth in Sentencing Act and the Sentencing Reform Act must be rescinded so that imprisoned humans have a possibility of rehabilitation and parole. No human shall be sentenced to Death by Incarceration or serve any sentence without the possibility of parole.

5. An immediate end to the racial overcharging, over-sentencing, and parole denials of Black and brown humans. Black humans shall no longer be denied parole because the victim of the crime was white, which is a particular problem in southern states.

6. An immediate end to racist gang enhancement laws targeting Black and brown humans.

7. No imprisoned human shall be denied access to rehabilitation programs at their place of detention because of their label as a violent offender.

8. State prisons must be funded specifically to offer more rehabilitation services.

9. Pell grants must be reinstated in all US states and territories.

10. The voting rights of all confined citizens serving prison sentences, pretrial detainees, and so-called “ex-felons” must be counted. Representation is demanded. All voices count!

The organizers wrote that the protest would be enacted through peaceful sit-ins, refusals to work, commissary boycotts, hunger strikes, and other nonviolent means of resistance. But it’s the strike of prison work that seems to have attracted heightened media attention.

In some states prisoners are required to work difficult or dangerous jobs—such as fighting wildfires, farming, and manufacturing—for little or no pay. In others, private prisons contract with private companies to provide cheap labor. But in Illinois (where there are no private prisons), prison work is actually so scarce that inmates may not be striking against it.

Until the mid-1990s, the Illinois Department of Corrections had a robust vocational training program and on- and off-site job opportunities for inmates. In more recent years, however, prison jobs, apprenticeships, and educational programs have all but disappeared. Most inmates in IDOC now spend more than 20 hours a day confined to their cells—even if they’re not technically in solitary confinement or segregation, according to Alan Mills of the Uptown People’s Law Center, which regularly represents IDOC inmates in civil rights lawsuits.

“Unlike many states where the problem is prisoners are forced to do jobs that are horrible with very little money, in Illinois prisoners are made to sit in their cells with nothing whatsoever to do,” Mills explains. Because of this, jobs are highly coveted among his IDOC clients. Many feel that “even if a job is poorly paid it’s an improvement to confinement,” Mills says.

Brian Nelson, 53, who works as a prisoners’ rights coordinator at UPLC and who was incarcerated at IDOC between 1982 and 2010, agrees that Illinois prisoners are unlikely to be striking specifically against prison work.

“In the 80s, when I first got locked up, there was a lot of jobs, a lot of industries in IDOC, and almost everybody had a job or went to school,” Nelson says. He recalls a furniture factory at Stateville; a broom, mattress, and cigarette factory at Menard; street sign and license place manufacturing at Pontiac. Medium-security facilities had telemarketing centers and farms. Then IDOC was hit with a combination of state and federal budget cuts and scandals about leniency toward inmates—most notably salacious video revelations of Richard Speck, convicted for murdering eight women in 1966, using drugs and bragging about having “fun” in prison.

Both Mills and Nelson say the Speck scandal gave IDOC a pretext to crack down and curb jobs and other programs. Just a couple of years before that, the Clinton administration eliminated Pell grants for prisoner higher education through the 1994 crime bill, which also ratcheted up the war on drugs. IDOC made promises about expanding programming for inmates once it removed “troublemakers” from the general population and put them into the newly constructed Tamms “supermax” in 1998, but that never transpired.

Pay for jobs in IDOC kitchens, laundries, law libraries, and facilities maintenance varies. Nelson recalls jobs like gallery sweeping paying $15 per month, and kitchen jobs paying between $25 and $35 per month. The factory jobs were better paid, up to $300 per month.

Nelson spent two years in the late 1990s in a New Mexico prison (part of Illinois’s Interstate Compact Agreement to transfer prisoners to other states for security reasons). There he was trained as a tailor and remembers having consistent work and opportunities for free movement. “Everybody out there was given trust until you messed it up,” he recalls. He got to keep 30 percent of his paycheck for commissary, a portion of his earnings went into a victims’ restitution fund, and another portion was saved on prisoners’ behalf “for when you went home.” When he came back to IDOC in 1998 he went straight to Tamms, where there was no work at all, and he spent the next 12 years in solitary confinement.

Nelson says he knows about 100 other people who’ve left IDOC. “Out of all my friends that have been released only three of us have a full-time job. Most are on social security.” He says the lack of education and training in prison are to blame, and it causes many formerly incarcerated people to give up hope once they get out.

IDOC spokeswoman Lindsey Hess couldn’t confirm the number of inmates currently employed at prison jobs or with partner organizations. In an e-mail, she said the department had not had any reports of “offenders participating in this strike.”

In addition to the scarcity of prison work, another impediment to the prison strike in Illinois could be the notoriously harsh repression of prisoner organizing. Mills and Nelson both shared stories of crackdowns on politically and religiously motivated organizing attempts at IDOC. “If more than three prisoners are seen talking together they can be charged with gang activity,” Mills says. “They lose their jobs and they’d get sent to solitary.”

Mills says members of a Christian group at Menard were charged with “unauthorized organizational activity” for holding a prayer meeting on the prison yard in the early 2000s. At Pontiac in 2013, an inmate who discussed principles of anarchism with someone else was accused of gang activity, sent to months of solitary confinement, and had “good time” (which earns early release) revoked. Nelson recalls the severe punishment of a group of inmates at Pontiac that same year who held a hunger strike against living conditions and indefinite solitary confinement. One of the hunger strikers was cited “for us being outside the prison [in solidarity],” Nelson says. “They took a year good time from him and gave him a year of solitary.”

But artist and activist Monica Cosby, who was incarcerated between 1995 and 2015, says the disincentives for organizing and the lack of IDOC reports of coordinated participation in the nationwide strike doesn’t mean that inmates aren’t actively resisting their conditions. “Our resistance lives in us all day long because we choose to be alive [in women’s prison],” she says. “We cook for each other, we celebrate with each other when one of our kids graduates high school, or goes to prom, we cry with each other, we love each other.”

In addition to harsh punishment for political organizing Cosby says incarcerated women face retribution for the refusal of guards’ sexual overtures. The danger isn’t just winding up in solitary confinement or losing a release date, but losing coveted visits with children. “When [correctional officers] come at us and make sexual advances and we say no and know what can happen to us when we say no—that’s resistance,” Cosby says.

In her experience across Illinois’s women’s prisons, jobs were also scarce and paid between $15 and $150 per month. Cosby was in a cooking and baking apprenticeship program for about six years and made at most $65 per month, but the program “got destroyed” in the early 2000s. Some jobs may seem like good opportunities but required indignities some inmates didn’t want to submit to. “If it was a job I might have been interested in but knew I’d have to be strip-searched to go in or come out, I didn’t want to do it,” Cosby explains. That kind of resistance—while individual and not apparently organized, still counts, she says. “It’s resistance every day.”

Cosby thinks many people erroneously think women don’t organize in prison, but that in fact the social bonds people form are in themselves a form of organizing. “The fullest relationships I ever had, I had in prison,” she says. “There’s this massive communication and cooperation, it just doesn’t look as dramatic.”

She recalled a friend named Victoria taking her own life while she was at Logan—”IDOC killed her by suicide,” Cosby says. At first, she recalls, “they wouldn’t let us have a funeral or memorial service for her. And when we were allowed to do the service we weren’t allowed to say her name.”  In response, the women organized to wear something purple—Victoria’s favorite color—on a specific day. It was to remember their friend “and to say fuck you to the warden.” An action like this is among the many ways people in prison protest on a daily basis, “and it’s just as powerful as any other, just as legitimate.”