While he has spent much of the past two years in solitary confinement, Melvin Ray is still eager to talk about what he sees as a growing national movement that touches Salinas Valley State Prison in Soledad.
On Friday, Sept. 9, the 45th anniversary of the Attica Prison riot in New York that spurred reform nationally, inmates across the country plan to go on strike to protest what they describe as forced labor, draconian drug laws and mass incarceration.
“We want people to know the 13th Amendment never abolished slavery,” Ray says from the Donaldson Correctional Facility in Bessemer, Alabama.
“People are profiting off forced prison labor,” Ray continues. “When we stop working these jobs, when we stop buying things from the commissary, we hit the economic heart of the prison system.”
At 45, Ray is serving life without parole for a murder he claims not to have committed. He is a leader in the Free Alabama Movement that orchestrated a prison strike in 2014 and spurred prisoners in other states to organize.
All told, inmates in 20 states are planning to strike on Sept. 9, including more than 800 in California prisons and 20 at Salinas Valley State Prison, according to Cole Dorsey, an Oakland-based organizer with Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee.
IWOC, an offshoot of the radical union Industrial Worker of the World, was created in 2014 to help coordinate national efforts for prison strikes and reform in the prison system.
Inmates in Salinas Valley State Prison perform various jobs at the prison, from food prep in dining halls and selling goods in the commissary, to maintenance and laundry.
“No one is forced to work,” says Matthew Atchley, assistant warden at the Correctional Training Facility, also in Soledad. “In most cases, inmates are happy to work. Most jobs have waiting lists.”