The American History Podcast

A Program Of Virginia Foundation for the Humanities


History Behind the Headlines: Prison Strike

Today, prisoners across the country are set to begin a 19-day strike with the intent to end what they’re calling “modern-day slavery.” The inmates plan to stop working and end commissary spending.

Those involved in what’s being called Prison Strike 2018 released their list of demands via the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee’s website. The second demand, “An immediate end to prison slavery,” refers in part to the 13th amendment which reads, “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”

After the Civil War and the passage of the 13th amendment, large numbers of African American men were charged with crimes – many of them trumped up or minor – and then given harsh sentences. In a process known as convict leasing, these inmates were rented as labor for local businesses. While many Southern states later opted to only use prisoner workers for “public projects in chain gangs,” the practice of using prisoners as free or cheap labor continues. This month, multiple news outlets reported that inmates paid $1 an hour are fighting California’s wildfires.

In BackStory’s “Too Good To Be True: Myths in American History,” we learned that John Henry was an actual man who ended up in prison and forced into hard labor. Listen to the segment and learn from historian Scott Reynolds Nelson how Henry and many others have been trapped into a system of slavery that is still legal to this day.

About History Behind The Headlines: When breaking news and history collide, BackStory brings the context. This new blog feature takes trending news items and, whenever possible, offers BackStory host commentary or segments from previous episodes that provide a historical viewpoint.


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