Prison Labor Unions in America: What North Carolina Taught Us.

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With the development of the Georgia prisoners’ labor strike, there is renewed interest in the labor movement behind the walls of prison and the rights of the incarcerated to organize.  A jailhouse lawyer like me always wants to know the legal precedent on an issue.  Has this been heard before?  If so, how do the past decisions affect current tactics?

Ten years ago, while earning $2 per day, I came upon Jones v. North Carolina Prisoners’ Labor Union, Inc., 433 U.S. 119 (1977) where the U.S. Supreme Court reversed the lower court decision that the prisoners were free to unionize (including the right to solicit other members, distribute bulk mailings, etc.).  This ruling has formed a part of the Court’s pattern: to leave prison issues to prison administrators.  Looking back at the American penal system of three decades ago, as compared to now, the Court will soon need to discard that approach if the Rule of Law and constitutional rights are to play a role in restoring sanity to the incarceration nation.

A very timely book, From Black Power to Prison Power: The Making of Jones v. North Carolina Prisoners’ Labor Union, Inc., forthcoming by Drexel Law Professor Donald F. Tibbs, is poised to shed some light on the connections of prisons and social movements.  As Tibbs writes:

“During the late 1960’s through the 1970’s, race and punishment were conjoined twins. The political and legal ambitions of many governmental leaders, and the wardens that managed America’s prison system are ineluctably tied to the proliferation (and dissolution) of African American social movements – especially the Black Power Movement and its lead organization, the Black Panther Party. By the time Jones was argued before the Supreme Court in 1977, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover had spent considerable years and federal resources “preventing the rise of a black messiah.” Using his brand product, COINTELPRO, Hoover targeted every Black radical that he worried might “unify the masses.” He defined their organizations as Black Nationalist Hate Groups and he openly declared their leaders, as well as their followers, to be the “greatest threat to the internal security” of America. On many levels, Hoover succeeded. Most notable was his campaign against the Black Panther Party and its leaders ranging from Huey P. Newton to Elaine Brown.”

Coincidentally, Elaine Brown has been an activist on the ground in Georgia working with those prisoners and their solidarity supporters (including over 3200 names on a Petition of Solidarity) regarding the current episode.  Those activists have successfully bridged the gap between the cages and the community, as there are politicians and prosecutors investigating the abuses in Georgia– those that led up to the labor strike, and those that occurred in retaliation.

The Jones decision framed the North Carolina struggle as a veil for Black Nationalist Hate, despite the fact that (similar to Georgia) the group was composed of a multi-ethnic, multi-generational base and leadership.  As every conscious prisoner knows..  there’s only one color in prison:  Khaki.  (Orange, or blue, depending on the jurisdiction).  As interest grows around prisoners’ Freedoms to Associate, Assemble, Speak, Redress Grievances, Petition Their Government and the like. the issue of Jones is certain to be revisited.


About Bruce Reilly

Bruce Reilly is the Deputy Director of Voice of the Ex-Offender in New Orleans, LA. He is a graduate of Tulane Law School and author of NewJack's Guide to the Big House. Much of his writing can be found on
This entry was posted in Commentary, Courts, Prison Conditions, prison economics and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Prison Labor Unions in America: What North Carolina Taught Us.

  1. Maria Archuleta says:

    Exciting work. I tweeted it.


  2. Pingback: Unprison 2011-2013 Index | unprison

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