And it usually follows the same predictable conveyer-belt of press outrage over supposed prison luxuries, followed by system-wide implementation of draconian policy, followed by catastrophic consequences.


Almost every aspect of the prison system you look at is banal and counter-productive. And it usually follows the same predictable conveyer-belt of press outrage over supposed prison luxuries, followed by system-wide implementation of draconian policy, followed by catastrophic consequences.

Take drug tests. Before drug tests were introduced 1996, cannabis was far and away the most popular drug. It is a very good drug for killing boredom, which is the main problem inmates face. Many wardens secretly rather liked it, because it kept inmates docile. But here's the thing about cannabis: it stays in your system for months. Heroin doesn't. So the advent of drug tests triggered a sudden move among inmates to a much harder and more dangerous drug.

"Junkies pass drug tests with flying colours"

"You'd see people who were junkies and smoking heroin the night before pass with flying colours," Cattermole says. "It passes through the system in a few hours. Drink two litres of water and you'll pass the piss test. But weed stays." Many inmates have migrated over to synthetic cannabis – former legal highs like Spice and Black Mamba. Both are far more dangerous than cannabis. Ambulances picking up the victims of Black Mamba have become so regular they are dubbed “mambulances” in some prisons.

The punishment and reward system in prison – its official title is Incentives and Earned Privileges – was substantially toughened up by Chris Grayling during his disastrous tenure as justice secretary. It means that anyone who upsets a guard for any reason can be put on the basic regime – stripping you of your possessions and your own clothes, taking away your TV and putting you in solitary. Once upon a time you could appeal the decision with an internal process for establishing what happened. Now it's largely at the discretion of the authorities.

Those who constantly fall foul of the system are called “basic riders”. "They're people who just can't hold it together," Cattermole explains. "They smoke fags whenever they like or tell the screws [guards] to fuck off."

Obviously some sort of punishment and reward system is needed to keep inmates in order, but the one instituted in British prisons is predictably wrong-headed. "The twisted thing is your visit allowance is reduced when you're on basic," Cattermole says. "These people, if they make contact with family it reminds them that there's a world outside prison – so maybe they don't try to act the big man inside. Fuck that, right? You want to get released and see your mum. Reducing visits, reducing exposure to their support network, is an incredibly bad idea."


Across the country, inmates are protesting a wide range of issues: from harsh parole systems and three-strike laws to the lack of educational services, medical neglect, and overcrowding. But the issue that has unified protesters is that of prison labor — a $2 billion a year industry that employs nearly 900,000 prisoners while paying them a few cents an hour in some states, and nothing at all in others. In addition to work for private companies, prisoners also cook, clean, and work on maintenance and construction in the prisons themselves — forcing officials to pay staff to carry out those tasks in response to work stoppages. “They cannot run these facilities without us,” organizers wrote ahead of the strike. “We will not only demand the end to prison slavery, we will end it ourselves by ceasing to be slaves.”
Prisoners on strike are calling for the repeal of an exception listed in the 13th Amendment to the United States Constitution, which bans “involuntary servitude” in addition to slavery, “except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.”
That forced labor remains legal in prison is unknown to many Americans, and that’s something strikers hope to change with this action. But it’s also a sign of how little the general public knows about the country’s massive prison system. “A nation that imprisons 1 percent of its population has an obligation to know what’s happening to those 2.4 million people,” Ethan Zuckerman, director of the Center for Civic Media at MIT, wrote in a blog post about the tepid response to the strike. “And right now, we don’t know.”
But while information on prisons is notoriously hard to obtain, a potentially larger problem for the striking prisoners is the seemingly limited interest in their plight, which remains confined to a few activists, family members, and formerly incarcerated people, even at a time when criminal justice issues and prison reform are high on the agenda of social justice advocates and politicians alike.