Solidarity Beyond Bars

Unionizing Prison Labour

By Jordan House and Asaf Rashid  

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Prisons don’t work, but prisoners do. Prisons are often critiqued as unjust, but we hear little about the daily labour of incarcerated workers — what they do, how they do it, who they do it for and under which conditions. Unions protect workers fighting for better pay and against discrimination and occupational health and safety concerns, but prisoners are denied this protection despite being the lowest paid workers with the least choice in what they do — the most vulnerable among the working class. Starting from the perspective that work during imprisonment is not “rehabilitative,” this book examines the reasons why people should care about prison labour and how prisoners have struggled to organize for labour power in the past. Unionizing incarcerated workers is critical for both the labour movement and struggles for prison justice, this book argues, to negotiate changes to working conditions as well as the power dynamics within prisons themselves.

“From Amazon to COVID, from racial justice struggles to housing, workers have been the backbone of collective struggle. In this book, Rashid and House take us behind bars to explore the histories and contemporary struggles of incarcerated workers and the possibilities for organizing. A must read for all interested in abolition movements, workers’ struggle, and the urgent need to collectively organize for a better world.”

— El Jones, author of Abolitionist Intimacies

Solidarity Beyond Bars should be read by social justice and labour scholars and activists. House and Rashid take the reader through the byzantine bureaucratic, labour, and punitive structures that render prisoners’ work invisible, denying them the same rights as free labourers. Well researched and engagingly written, Solidarity Beyond Bars not only describes the current (and deplorable) state of prison labour but explains how legal paradoxes and capitalist impulses brought Canada to this point, and what the paths forward may be.

— Melissa Munn, co-author of Disruptive Prisoners and On the Outside

“This book is a timely and important contribution to scholarship on abolition, prisoners’ rights, and labour organizing. The urgent topic of prison labour unionization has rarely been articulated or proposed. The authors discuss the intricate links between capitalism and imprisonment, showing how unionization of prison labour can ameliorate some of the harms of incarceration, is compatible with larger projects of prison abolition, and how prisoners’ inclusion in workers struggles will be beneficial to broader struggles against capitalist exploitation.”

— Jessica Evans, Toronto Metropolitan University

“A solid piece of scholarship exploring carceral customs in Western capitalist societies, grounded in a coherent political economy.”

— Bob Gaucher, co-founder and previous editor of the Journal of Prisoners on Prisons

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Contents

  • Introduction
  • Why Care about Prisoners’ Labour Rights?
  • All Work and (Almost) No Pay
  • Injury, Illness, and Death
  • “Sweat the Evil Out”: The Evolution of Canadian Prison Labour
  • What Are the Alternatives?
  • The Case for Prisoners’ Labour Unions
  • Conclusion: And Justice for All?

Authors

  • Jordan House

    Department of Labour Studies, Brock University

    Jordan House is an assistant professor in the Department of Labour Studies at Brock University. His research focuses on prison labour and prisoner-worker organizing, new forms of worker organization and labour movement renewal. His work has appeared in several publications, including Labour / Le Travail, Labor Studies Journal, Rankandfile.ca, Canadian Dimension and Jacobin. He previously worked as a labour organizer and union researcher and is a long-time prison justice activist.

  • Asaf Rashid

    Asaf Rashid went from being an aspiring scholar in environmental studies to a community agitator and campaigns coordinator of the Nova Scotia Public Interest Research Group. He is a lawyer, based in k’jipuktuk/Halifax and a board member of the Halifax Workers Action Centre, a member of the Canadian Prison Lawyers Association and supporter of the East Coast Prison Justice Society. Rashid has also been a union organizer and labour rights activist, among other social justice activities.

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