Home » Articles posted by Jonathan Schachter

Author Archives: Jonathan Schachter

Prisoner Activism and Organization

by Jonathan Schachter

Source: “I Make American Flags for Thirty-five Cents a Day”[1]

This article, from a December 16, 1972 – January 5, 1973 issue, was published by a newspaper entitled Fifth Estate. The piece “I Make American Flags for Thirty-five Cents a Day,” details the sentiments and experiences of a convict laborer at Green Haven Prison in New York. He writes of his life before prison – a life that was stripped away from him once he was labeled with the title “convict.”[2] After some research, I crucially discovered that the Fifth Estate newspaper is a mainly anarchist, anti-authoritarian outlet with an approach to change that is very much action-oriented, as an alternative to the traditional fourth estate of media.[3] It certainly would be in line with this organization’s overt agenda to support the establishment of labor unions, especially if these unions are used to champion the rights of convict laborers, like the Prison Labor Union that the author speaks of. It is similarly unsurprising that this newspaper decides to uplift the voice of a historically disparaged and silenced group, being convicts, with the first-person narrative that the author provides. It is important to note the membership and donation applications presented after the article, as this article hopes to increase both union members and donors.

This opinion-piece in the direct words of a convict laborer certainly is meant to target more liberal-thinking and acting individuals who subscribe to this newspaper (which is presumably almost the entirety of their subscribed demographic). It is clear that they want their readers to support the formation and strengthening of the Prison Labor Union as well as find incarcerated individuals who are interested in joining the union. As convicts are put in a group that is typically not included in discussions of rights and liberties (as these two principles are stripped from them by the state), this is not a mainstream issue and something that Fifth Estate wants to shine light on for their readers. Presumably, they are hoping to grow the membership and support of the Prison Labor Union.

Based on the accompanying image, it can be assumed that the writer of the newspaper article is a black inmate (and statistically speaking it is probable), and there are many more just like him in carceral institutions across the nation.[4] The newspaper’s choice to let him guide the dialogue of the article perfectly elucidates how black inmates and activists alike were able to draw the public’s attention toward the prison, demonstrate the prison as a site of racial oppression, and establish the confinement that carceral institutions promote as a common thread in the lives of black Americans – whether inside these institutions or not – through the specific voices of inmates in this period of history.[5] By the newspaper elevating the personal experiences and sentiments of the inmate writer, he demonstrates that he is not just a convict, but he is a human seeking basic justice (and, overall, nothing too overzealous).[6] Activists like those at Fifth Estate furthered the reach of the ongoing Civil Rights Era and extended it to the voices of those incarcerated. This was a strong and necessary move, as the same injustices that were being exposed outside the prison during this period were major factors in the incarceration of many individuals within the growing prison industrial complex, a majority of which were black. The best way of grappling this intersectionality is through the elevation of black inmate voices in this period, as argued by Dan Berger, a scholar in race studies and prison organization.[7] It cannot be understated that prisons and black politics in a post-emancipation America share a simultaneous history.[8] The writer of this newspaper is not alone, as a black individual locked up while his family is struggling financially and domestically without him. He, along with an entire population of incarcerated black men and women, is stuck in a system that is devised to keep him down while others prosper off the fruits of his labor, and readers are able to establish similarities in their personal experiences.

The same form of legislative action that freed enslaved populations set up barriers to their social and economic mobility.[9] By keeping people just like the author of this piece in prison, the economic systems and social structures that originated before emancipation were allowed to persist, extending the modernity of neoslavery.[10] The Thirteenth Amendment, while emancipating these former slaves, simultaneously provided the foundation for the legal rationale which established the carceral site as the central institution to the sustenance of racial oppression and capitalism.[11] The author of “I Make American Flags for Thirty-five Cents a Day” was a victim of an amendment that outlawed slavery, but not when used as a punishment for a crime.[12] This gave root to the formation of American carceral sites as a place of confinement, suppression, and labor rather than reformation and correction. The author of the newspaper article wants to be able to be a contributing member of American society and stimulate an economic system outside of the walls of his prison.[13] However, he is relegated to a position null of power, where his entire livelihood can be dictated by members of the carceral state (along with any person of great influence, namely white elites), a system that is eerily similar to that of slavery.

Just five years after the printing of this article, all hopes of the burgeoning Prison Labor Union movement diminished. With the Supreme Court decision of Jones v. North Carolina Prisoners’ Union, the court ruled that the provisions of the First Amendment that protect labor union membership did not apply to prisoners.[14] With this precedent, the joining of prison labor unions was prohibited, meetings of the unions were barred, and all correspondence about unions to prisoners ceased.[15] With one sweeping movement, the court dismantled decades of work and optimism. The detailed and difficult history of prison organization demonstrates how even though resistance within carceral sites may be routine, organized movements – such as the Prison Labor Union this article promotes – are much harder to come by. Set by judicial precedent, legal proceedings, social establishments, and economic foundations, the prison has become a place where incarcerated individuals are stripped of their rights. Prisoners like the writer of “I Make American Flags for Thirty-five Cents a Day” are forced to bolster and support an economic system that never has – and seemingly never will – support them, with little to no say in the matter.



[1] “I Make American Flags for Thirty-five Cents a Day,” Fifth Estate (Detroit, MI) 7, no. 19 (1972-1973): 16, accessed July 27, 2020, https://voices-revealdigital-org.proxy.lib.duke.edu/?a=d&d=BFGJBGD19721216.1.16&e=——-en-20–1–txt-txIN-women+convict+labor————–1.

[2] Ibid.

[3] “About Fifth Estate,” Fifth Estate, accessed July 30, 2020, https://www.fifthestate.org/about/.

[4] “I Make American Flags for Thirty-Five Cents a Day,” Fifth Estate.

[5] Dan Berger, Captive Nation: Black Prison Organizing in the Civil Rights Era (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2014), 4, https://heinonline-org.proxy.lib.duke.edu/HOL/Page?collection=agopinions&handle=hein.slavery/uncaaao0001&id=25&men_tab=srchresults#.

[6] I Make American Flags for Thirty-Five Cents a Day,” Fifth Estate.

[7] Berger, Captive Nation, 5.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Sarah Haley, “No Mercy Here: Gender, Punishment, and the Making of Jim Crow Modernity (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2016), 7, Sakai.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Berger, Captive Nation, 5.

[12] Ibid.

[13] “I Make American Flags for Thirty-Five Cents a Day,” Fifth Estate.

[14] Jones v. North Carolina Prisoners’ Union, 433 U.S. 119 (1977).

[15] Ibid.