Inmates of Florida’s prisons are planning to use Monday’s Martin Luther King Day holiday to launch a statewide strike over conditions they say amount to modern-day slavery.
The unusual protest has been called by inmates angry at being used as unpaid clean-up crews for storm debris in sweltering temperatures last September, after Hurricane Irma struck the state.
But organisers cite a number of other long-standing grievances for the planned month-long action, in which prisoners will refuse to take part in work assignments and forego purchasing “overpriced” luxury items such as snacks and toiletries, in an attempt to hit the state’s department of corrections in the pocket.
“Our goal is to make the governor realise that it will cost the state of Florida millions of dollars daily to contract outside companies to come and cook, clean and handle the maintenance,” the unnamed prisoners said in a statement posted on the website of the inmates’ advocacy group Fight Toxic Prisons.
“This will cause a total breakdown. We must use everything we have to show that we mean business.”
Florida has the nation’s third-largest prison system with 97,000 inmates, according to state figures. It is also one of the most troubled and violent such systems, with allegations of abuse of inmates rife.
In 2017, officers were cleared of blame for the death of a mentally ill patient they left in a scalding shower for two hours as punishment. In-depth investigations by the Miami Herald uncovered large numbers of rapes, beatings and cover-ups in the state’s non-air-conditioned jails.
The prisoners have dubbed their protest Operation Push, after civil rights leader Jesse Jackson’s 1970s campaign to improve economic conditions for African Americans. Almost a third of Florida inmates are black, compared to fewer than 17% in the general population.
One key demand is a reasonable wage for the labour inmates provide.
“They force them to work at gunpoint and they pay them nothing,” said Paul Wright, executive director of the Florida-based Human Rights Defense Cener.
“There’s a word for that, it’s called slavery.
“Florida is one of the few states in the country that doesn’t pretend to pay even a nominal wage. Some states might say they pay 10 cents a day, or 15 cents an hour, or whatever, but here they make it pretty clear they don’t pay prisoners anything, they’re not going to, and prisoners are totally enslaved at every level.
“There’s no legal way for Florida’s prisoners to earn money in the prison system.”
The inmates also want the return of parole as an incentive for those with long-term sentences and an end to what they see as price gouging on food and other necessities.
“One case of soup on the street cost $4, it costs us $17 on the inside,” the prisoners said in their statement. “This is highway robbery without a gun. It’s not just us that they’re taking from. It’s our families who struggle to make ends meet and send us money, they are the real victims.”
Advocacy groups and friends and families of inmates have organised solidarity rallies outside several prisons and department of corrections offices on Monday, including in Miami and Tallahassee.
According to the Tallahassee Democrat, officials sent an email to employees at department headquarters urging them to lock doors and stay inside during the protests.
Tensions are running high in the Florida prison system. Last August, all facilities were placed on a three-day lockdown after unspecific threats of rioting.
In an emailed statement to the Guardian and other media outlets, department of corrections communications director Michelle Glady did not address detailed questions about the planned response to Monday’s planned protests.
“The department will continue to ensure the safe operation of our correctional facilities,” she said.