You’re listening to Episode 37 of the Trafficking Dispatch, a biweekly podcast that briefs you on human trafficking issues in a brief amount of time. I’m your host, Victoria Erdel. In this episode, we’ll hear from a prominent anti-prison slavery advocate.
In the last episode, Ariel talked about the one form of slavery that is still legal in the US: the enslavement of prisoners. As promised, for this episode we now turn to someone who has more concrete experience in fighting the issue. Amani Sawari, our interviewee for this episode, is a writer, national coordinator of the Right2Vote Campaign, and an advocate who takes on many issues, prison slavery being one of them.
Victoria: So Amani, I've done a little snooping around your website and I've read several of your pieces and listened to a few of your poems, which were all really moving by the way. And it seems that you use your many talents to address a variety of issues. But for prison labor specifically, how did you become interested in that issue? Is there a specific moment in your life when you can remember first learning about this issue, or has it always been an interest of yours?
Amani: Um, I definitely wasn't passionate about prison labor as like a young, young elementary school student. But the first time that I really learned about it was when I just started to hear like examples from family friends who were incarcerated. They would talk about the jobs that they have and how -- you know, they would say, "Oh I really don't want to work in the kitchen, I'd rather do like dog training." Or, "I hate working laundry," or whatever it is. They would have certain jobs that they like, and you could tell that the job that they like, like training the seeing eye dogs, actually felt like fulfilling work, even though they still weren't being paid that well. Like, in Michigan, training seeing eye dogs, you get $80 a month. So, that's nothing. That's nothing. But, they get to hang out with the dogs all day and go to classes with the dogs, learn about dog behavior. They have like, this thing that's taking up their time and that they feel like they're contributing to society in a positive way because they're helping a dog be prepared to serve someone who needs it. So those are the types of jobs that they like. But even with jobs that they like, they still were like grossly underpaid. So if you're grossly underpaid doing a job you really don't like, that's even worse. And a lot of them, jobs that prisoners may like, have waitlists. So if you're waiting for a job, like you want to do the dog watching, you have to work a different job while you're on the waitlist. And that can go on for months. Like I had one friend working in the kitchen for six months and every day he wanted to quit. All he did in the kitchen was like, fold napkins around the fork, and he would do that for eight hours. Fold napkins around the fork. And he hated it. He really wanted to be a dog trainer, though, so he had to do that until there was a job opening like someone got transferred or a new dog came in, or whatever it was. Then he finally got that job. But his participation in the national strike, he lost that job. So he worked the kitchen for about six months of like kitchen labor from him, and he only got to do like two to three months of the job he actually wanted to do in the end.
Victoria: So is it that every single prisoner has to work, it's just that you might not get the specific job that you want, or is it that --
Amani: It depends on the state. In Michigan, not every single prisoner has to work. But if you want to work, you don't get to pick the job. You could say like what your preference is and they'll put you on a list, but what's open is what's open. So you're going to work what the prison needs until there's an opening in what you want.
Victoria: Mhmm, and like what you were saying, making $80 a month is not a lot, so if you need to send money to relatives or save up for when you're released...and a lot of jobs ask if you've ever gone to prison before, which is going to put you at a greater disadvantage, but that's a different discussion entirely...
Amani: Yeah, and the experience of -- like the jobs that they offer in prison don't give you competitive experience in the job markets outside of prison. So that's another huge issue. If you're going to be working a job in prison and it doesn't pay much, you could at least be earning some valuable experience. And that's kind of how they frame it like, "Oh, these people are getting experience." But they're getting experience doing things that machines do out here. Or like, dog training I think is pretty exclusive to prisons. There might be some dog trainers outside, but a guy who's been incarcerated for 10 years that trained dogs for 2 years can't compete against like a dog whisperer on the outside who's been doing that for like 20 years. So, it's like the experience that they get isn't competitive in the market. Folding sporks is not something that you can use when you come out here. And I know here in Michigan because it's such a competitive job market, even myself with a four-year degree couldn't find a job looking for 6 months. Like I had to come back to Washington where the jobs are fruitful. So, that's another thing. They don't get paid enough to survive in there and they don't the experience they need to survive out here so it's this revolving door.
Victoria: Yeah, and I want to go back to something you said earlier. So you mentioned that one of your friends lost the job he wanted after participating in the National Prison Strike. Can you tell me more about that? What's the main goal of participating in that strike?
Amani: Right. Well, there were four different ways that prisoners participated. They could sit-in in a common area and not move, sit-in as a group. And they were all different, peaceful, non-violent ways of protest. Another way was refusing to go to work. A lot of prisoners were hesitant to do this because even though if every prisoner refused to go to work for a week, it could completely shut the prison down, there's this huge threat of losing their jobs, which they feel like they need because it's their only source of income and then also suffering from retaliation. So though some prisoners did that, it was not popular. And then, hunger striking was another way, refusing to eat food. That was the most popular because for people in solitary that was the only form of striking they had access to. And then refusing to use the telephones because telephones are overpriced so a lot of prisoners wanted the rates for phone calls to go down. So what Sincere did, he's incarcerated -- at that time he was at Alger Maximum Security Prison in the Upper Peninsula -- he rallied some folks together and said, "Hey, we're not going to use the phones." So because his job as a dog trainer required him to be around the dog all the time, there was no, "Um, I'm just not going to look at the dog or feed the dog or walk the dog." He couldn't not do that. However, he did participate in not using the telephone. So he didn't talk on the phone and he didn't use the phone throughout the entire strike. But in addition to not using the phone, he was also receiving the newsletter. The newsletter was called "Solid Black Fists" and they said that the newsletter, though it was one they approved to come in, because he had that newsletter, he was not able to keep his job because they said that he was participating in the strike and um, but um, that's the reasons why they said you know, "you can't have your job anymore."
Victoria: Well, I'm sorry to hear about that.
Amani: Yeah, it was definitely difficult for him.
Victoria: So the reason why we wanted to talk about prison labor on the podcast in the first place is because on our Instagram we have discussions on the Sundays when we don't release a new episode. And the very first discussion we ever did was on the 13th amendment and how the US made slavery illegal except in prisons, and we wanted to know what our listeners thought of that. The responses were mixed. Some people thought it was wrong and others thought that since these people had been convicted of crimes, they deserve whatever happens to them in prison. I just wanted to hear your response to this opinion.
Amani: So, when you think about slavery as an institution and the way that it functions throughout the slave era. It completely stripped all humanity of an entire group of people. Stripped them of their family members, of any source of education, of an ability to read, they weren't allowed to earn for themselves or build wealth. They were raped, they were beaten, they were just treated like animals and not given a life of a human being just because they were assigned this label as a slave. It was at least one of the most, if not the most gross and offensive and violent forms of slavery that ever existed in the world. So for our government to recognize that, free the people, and then go back and write in the constitution, "We're going to preserve this for criminals," is just gross. Like, it's like, we recognize that it's not good. We recognize that it completely destroyed an entire, like generations of people over centuries. But we're going to keep it. We're going to use it for criminals. So it's really just reassigning the group of people that are going to suffer this insane treatment. Which is why we see so much abuse and violence in our prisons. They're made to be abusive and violent and dehumanizing because that's what slavery is. If we as a society are saying, "We don't want to treat any of our citizens like this," then we have to find a new way of restoring their behavior to something that we accept without using violence and dehumanization tactics as a form of punishment. There are other ways to punish people. If you think about a parent punishing their kid by taking away their cell phone or telling them they can't go to a party, that doesn't require violence or dehumanization. It's just adjusting some form of their environment in order to correct their behavior in a positive way. And we can do that on a massive scale for people who are incarcerated. But it's really sad that because America has been so used to dehumanizing groups of people for so long and exploiting them for their labor, it's really sad that we refuse to let go of that idea that punishment depends on dehumanization and violence, because it doesn't have to. And a lot of other countries don't use punishment in that form in order to correct the behavior of their citizens because they value all of our citizens. But I think that our democracy doesn't value black people in the same way as the rest of the people who chose to immigrate here, so that would be my response, do you value the people who are genocidally attacked as the people, as the other people? If you do, then you wouldn't want to use dehumanization and violence on them as a form of violence to correct their behavior, you'd want to find a different way, as any parent. If you think of the government as parents and all of the citizens as its children, then we would want to look at different ways of treating children who misbehave.
Victoria: Thank you so much for your response, and just a quick follow up question since you mentioned there are other countries that you believe have better justice systems. Do you have an example of other countries or regions that have better models that maybe our listeners can look into if they're interested in learning more about the topic?
Amani: European countries are really good countries to look at. They incarcerate their citizens, but they also provide them with education. People who are incarcerated -- their cells look more like dormitories, they have access to internet, they're way better fed. If you look at the food that they feed the people, it's actually edible. It's made for people to eat and it's food that really contributes to better behavior. Like if you feed someone trash, they're going to act like trash, and that's what we do in our system. We feed prisoners the bare minimum, we do the bare minimum. And in other European countries, they just have more access to programming, and they have more time to spend with their families. Taking away things like visitation and talking on the phone isn't a way to punish people who are already so separated from their families. You need to promote those family bonds, and that's what done in other countries. Officials know that the better their connections are on the outside, the better they'll be able to adjust when they get out. So there are a lot of different options, and I think some of the main goals for organizers that are looking to abolish prisons entirely are to increase the amount of programming that are offered to citizens who are incarcerated and maintain their outside relationships, and for them to also earn a minimum wage for the work that they do because the work that they do is valuable and our country depends on it, and they have families that are completely stuck in a cycle of poverty because they've lost this person's income source. And so, if they're just able to contribute to their family and save up for when they do get out, those would be incredible ways to revolutionize the ways that prisons deteriorate communities, by offering to programming, a lot of different programs. And yeah, lastly, that minimum wage component. Making sure that they're valued at the same level as people on the outside by earning at least that bare minimum amount for the work that they do.
Victoria: Wow, it's so interesting to hear about all of these different approaches to operating or even abolishing prisons around the world, and how families are being involved in this whole process. I had no idea, so thanks for letting me and the listeners know. For my last official question, because I'm assuming that most of the listeners have never gone to prison themselves, but they may just be interested in this issue and how they can help, what advice would you have for them in joining the fight against prison slavery and just modern slavery in general?
Amani: I think that for someone to be fully informed on whether prisons should exist and how prisoners should be treated, they definitely need to be in communication with incarcerated folks. There's no way that you can confidently say "People should be treated that way in prison," if you've never interacted with a prisoner, because you're coming from a perspective that maybe mainstream media has taught you or just someone telling you what they think from secondhand knowledge. So it's imperative that people connect with incarcerated folks. One step that I would take is writing a letter to someone who's incarcerated, and you can find people to write that are well versed in organizing on the inside. Looking at IWOC, so Incarcerated Workers Organizers Committee, going to their website, they have lists of individuals and like small descriptions of them. Some people who face retaliation because of their organizing and some people who are like looking for a penpal. Also if you follow the Right2Vote Report, which is a newsletter that goes out every month for the Right2Vote campaign that I am doing right now this year, you'll see articles that are published by incarcerated folks. On my website, sawarirmi.org, you can find articles that are published by incarcerated folks like L[UNCLEAR] Hamilton and Sincere who I told you about earlier who lost his job because of his participation in the prison strike. These are people who would love to hear from people on the outside, and who would be just so overwhelmingly excited to just educate young people or older people, educate anyone, no matter what level you're at as it relates to your understanding of prison labor and mass incarceration. That gives them life, so that's a great first step.
Amani painted a pretty clear picture of what goes on in a lot of prisons. More importantly, she gave some pretty clear steps you can take if you’re interested in learning more about the issue or even taking action. And in speaking of taking action, it’s time for our next Audible Audience submission! This episode’s submission comes from Mary Ninneman in the USA. Take it away, Mary!
Mary: My name is Mary Ninneman, and I am a senior at the University of Notre Dame. I'm currently researching human trafficking in the United States, specifically Nebraska, where I live. In Nebraska, many do not know that human trafficking is happening. I've often heard the exclamatory question, "That happens here?!" This, to me, illustrates human trafficking's hidden and clandestine nature. My research and consequent thesis seek to bring awareness to human trafficking within smaller communities. After all, if you are not aware of a problem, how are you capable of fixing it?
This has been the Trafficking Dispatch with Victoria Erdel. You can subscribe to our SoundCloud channel and tune into our next episode which will be released on April 21 at 5 pm. Or, if you would like to interact with us before then, you can visit our website at thetraffickingdispatch.com, follow us on our social media accounts – our handles are below – or email us with any questions or suggestions at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thank you for tuning into this episode, and we hope you’ll tune in again to join the fight against human trafficking.
Amani Sawari's Website: www.sawarimi.org
Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee: incarceratedworkers.org