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Is New Zealand exploiting prison workers?

US prisoners went on strike last week to protest the exploitation of their labour. And the conditions they’re protesting aren’t that different to those in New Zealand.

Starting on August 21st, hundreds of prisoners in dozens of American prisons declared they were going on nationwide strike. Jailhouse Lawyers Speak, an organisation of prisoners’ rights advocates formed inside prisons, released a statement explaining where this eruption had come from. The statement cited inhumane living conditions, racist discrimination, and a lack of opportunities for rehabilitation as causes of this strike. But foremost amongst these charges, loudest of all, was the issue of wages. Jailhouse Lawyers Speak represent a movement of workers paid cents an hour, if that much, and charge that this is nothing more than prison slavery.

Reading these words, and knowing that hundreds of people across America’s prisons are risking brutal, secret repression to organise against injustice, a shudder ran down my spine. For the past three years I have been an advocate working with New Zealand prisoners’ rights organisations People Against Prisons Aotearoa. I have spent most of my time with the organisation communicating directly with people living in some of the worst imaginable conditions in our country’s prisons. I know for a fact — from long hours talking in cramped visitation cells, from words whispered down prison phone lines, from accounts carefully scratched on prison-issued paper — that every single thing which ignited this wave of American prison strikes is rampant in New Zealand.

The imprisoned legal scholars of Jailhouse Lawyers Speak described the work they are made to do as “prison slavery”. In doing so, they drew a direct whakapapa from the chattel slavery of America’s recent past to the present day massive incarceration of African Americans. Indeed, African Americans are some of the most highly incarcerated people in the world. If they are being required to assemble furniture, military equipment, and consumer goods for barely dollars an hour, the comparison to slavery is a credible one.

Yet in Aotearoa, we have our own history of racism to contend with. Our own Minister of Corrections, Kelvin Davis, has acknowledged that the incarceration of poor and working class Māori is at backbreakingly high levels. At any given moment, 1 in 100 Māori are sitting inside a prison cell. Just like America, we too require prisoners to participate in labour. Last year, students at Victoria University of Wellington were outraged to discover the residence halls were using prison labour to do laundry.

People Against Prisons Aotearoa used the Official Information Act to inquire into the conditions of prison labour in this country, and what we found shocked even us. The Department of Corrections argued that “Prisoners are not employed by Corrections. Prisoners engaged in work and receiving an allowance do so outside the statutory framework for employment set out in the Employment Relations Act 2000.”

In this neat act of sophistry, by defining prisoners engaged in work as “not employed”, the department absolves itself of any responsibilities as an employer. The Employment Relations Act is the prevailing barrier between capital and labour that regulates all of our lives as workers. By sidestepping it, Corrections is treating prisoners in a manner that would be unlawful for any other group of people in our society.

People Against Prisons Aotearoa probed a little deeper into what this legal loophole meant for incarcerated workers. What we found is that prisoners are given an “allowance” for every hour they work which we are to believe, somehow, is not a wage. This allowance ranges from an absolute maximum of 60 cents per hour of labour all the way down to nothing at all for prisoners who refuse to participate.

The department claims that prisoners are not required to work (this would breach the International Labour Organisation’s Forced Labour Convention), but that prisoners who refuse would face sanctions including possible denial of parole. Data provided to People Against Prisons Aotearoa by the Department shows that in the last financial year, 10 million hours of this unprotected, barely-waged, and shakily-legal labour was extracted from prisoners.

The effects of this exploitation flow far beyond the prison gates. It trickles like a stream over poor and working class communities. Parents taken away from kids, kaumatua from whānau, wage-earners from dependents. Support systems collapse when people are locked up, and jobs dry up when there are cheaper alternatives in imprisoned labour. Corrections says it places just a thousand of its teeming population of prison leavers into jobs each year. The rest go right back into the poverty and exploitation barely different to that they just left.

In the United States, uncounted hundreds of prisoners are making a stand. It is a desperate one — one as likely to end under a riot squad’s baton, or in the living death of solitary confinement, as it is to end in victory. This is a struggle for justice, fought in an arena where the balance of forces swings heavily in favour of the powerful. Yet history shows us that these subterranean uprisings are as inevitable as they are destructive.

Those pushed to the bottom, crushed against the concrete of society’s indifference to their suffering, always stand up in the end. In Aotearoa, too, we grind people down this way. We lock people up, lock Māori up, by the thousands. Year on year the number of people pressed into overcrowded prison cells rises. Right now, in America, hundreds of prisoners are standing up against modern prison slavery. When the time comes here, when the pressure is too much, when the system buckles under its own contradictions and our own prison labourers stand up — will we stand up with them? Or will we press down harder, believing — believing in vain — that we can continue to press them down forever?

Emilie Rākete is a prisoner advocate from Tāmaki Makaurau studying the political economy of prisons in Aotearoa. She is a co-founder of People Against Prisons Aotearoa.

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