Slavery within the Prison System
America’s history is littered with momentous and history-changing events that have played a critical role in building the modern day diverse society. However, fewer institutions have shaped the country’s history like the institution of slavery that thrived in the country for over two centuries. At its peak, slavery was the primary source of labor in the United States and the territories it governed. For over two hundred years, millions of slaves who were captured or bought from Africa made their way to the Americas where they were forced to toil in plantations under grueling conditions marked by mistreatment and hard labor for no pay. Additionally, the oppression during this era was palpable, and the afterglow of chattel slavery as an institution left indelible marks and wounds that the country has struggled to heal for over a century. Even though it was abolished at the end of the American Civil War in 1865 by the passing of the 13th Amendment by the Congress, slavery still thrives in modern day America. Prison industry complex has exploited technicalities in the 13th Amendment and supporting laws to promote slavery and slave-like labor within America’s prison system.
The 13th Amendment: An Irony of Technicality
In September 2016, thousands of inmates across various United States’ correctional facilities launched a nationwide strike to protest against the slavery they were being subjected to. The strike highlighted legal loopholes that the prison industry complex had exploited for decades at the expense of inmates (Blau and Grinberg n.pag). Over the years, the institution of slavery has persistently reared its head in America’s prison industry; a multibillion-dollar business. The trapdoor that this sector has thrived on was left by the crafters of the landmark 13th Amendment that abolished slavery. The Amendment expressly states:
“Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime of which the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States (U.S.) nor any place subject to their jurisdiction” (King n.pag).
The legal loophole in the amendment that led to the nationwide strike by inmates is embedded in the very core of the amendment: “except as a punishment.” This escape clause essentially permits slave labor in the United States and areas where the country exerts jurisdictional authority. Undoubtedly, the clause allowed the institution of slavery to shift its shape instead of completely abolishing it as widely perceived by many. The metamorphosis of slavery turned it into a more nebulous institution. Its perpetuation was transferred to a seemingly less offensive platform to sanitize it (Balkin and Levinson 141 – 142).
Using the jurisdictional privilege granted to the criminal courts, albeit conflictingly, the correctional services have continually promoted penal servitude whereby prisoners are required by law to offer cheap or free labor. Despite the fact that its population represents around 5% of the global population, the U.S. inmate population makes up to a quarter of the global population of individuals incarcerated in correctional facilities (Peláez n.pag). With its over 2 million inmate population and enabling laws such as the 13th Amendment, the prison industry has thousands of cheap labor to exploit and maximize profit. It is an opportunity that big businesses have exploited efficiently.
The prison industry complex has grown into a multibillion dollar entity. Dozens of multinationals have directly and indirectly benefited from the services of inmates (Peláez n.pag). In some cases, some companies have even scaled down their labor force to tap into the cheap and skilled labor force in the correctional facilities. Enterprises such as AT&T and BP (British Petroleum) have used the cheap labor provided by the inmates for various core activities. In the case of BP, the company controversially employed African American inmates to help with the cleaning of the Gulf oil spill that devastated the local communities and took away the source of livelihoods for residents who relied on the populated ocean (Young n.pag). Furthermore, correctional facilities have sold products made by the inmates to corporations such as Wal-Mart and McDonald’s (Burrows n.pag)
In some states such as Colorado, prison workers in public correctional facilities are paid as little as $2 per hour spent toiling in the prison industrial complex. This is in stark contrast to the minimum wage paid by other states. For prison workers in private correctional facilities, the hourly pay truly defines slavery revisited in the 21st century. They have to contend with as little as 17 cents for every hour they spend working for the correctional facilities and the multinationals pumping in millions of dollars to support the facilities. The Texan Criminal Justice system is a classic example of institutionalized slavery, sanitized by legal grounding. The state’s modern-day plantations are renowned for their lively and highly productive agribusiness sector that specializes in pork, beef and animal feeds, vegetables and chicken eggs production (Blau and Grinberg n.pag). Like true slaves, inmates’ industry and diligence are rewarded with privileges in an ominous system that pays homage to the cotton plantation era (Burrows n.pag).
The numerous prison farms, though initially intended to provide food for the prison population, have become modern-day slave farms. They are no longer viewed as important platforms for teaching inmates valuable vocational skills (Lyons 9). On weekdays, inmates are required to work on these farms, either for a meager pay or for free. Like in the slave era, the inmates lack the liberty to choose whether to work in the fields or not. In fact, cases of inmates who refuse to work on the farms finding themselves in solitary confinement have been reported. Additionally, various states used inmates as laborers to build their infrastructures including railroads during the 19th and 20th centuries. Today, inmates are not only employed in the farms as cheap labor; but also have been contracted by multinational corporations but paid nickels, despite bringing in millions of dollars in profit (Peláez n.pag).
Before abolition, slavery was marked by forced labor, severe punishment for dissent and no pay. Today, inmates who object to working in the prison industry complex have to contend with solitary confinement. They are poorly paid while some work without any pay. In both eras, the enslaved individuals are forced to work against their will.
In conclusion, slavery was abolished over a hundred years ago with the passing of the 13th Amendment in 1865. However, there are technicalities in the clause of this amendment that also provided a loophole that many correctional facilities across the country have used to reinstate the institution of slavery. The clause permits penal servitude to be used as a form of punishment. Over the years, the resulting prison industry complex has grown into a highly profitable sector that primarily relies on the cheap labor in America’s correctional facilities. Inmates work in harsh conditions and are poorly paid while several multinationals such as BP and AT&T make millions in profits in the process. In some states, working in the prison industry complex is compulsory while they are paid in the form of privileges.
Balkin, Jack M., and Levinson, Sanford. “The Dangerous Thirteenth Amendment.” Columbia Law Review (2012), 101 – 146. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2115222
Burrows, Sara. How prison labor is the new American slavery and most of us unknowingly support it. Available at: http://returntonow.net/2016/06/13/prison-labor-is-the-new-american-slavery/
Blau, Max and Grinberg, Emanuella. “Why US inmates launched a nationwide strike.” CNN, 31 October 2016. Available at: http://edition.cnn.com/2016/10/30/us/us-prisoner-strike/index.html
King, Shaun. “How the 13th Amendment didn’t really abolish slavery, but let it live on in U.S. prisons.” New York Daily News, 21 September 2016. Available at: http://www.nydailynews.com/news/national/king-13th-amendment-didn-abolish-slavery-article-1.2801218
Lyons, Hillary. “Food, farming, and freedom: Promoting a sustainable model of food justice in America’s prisons.” Senior Capstone Projects. 73, 2012. Available at: http://digitalwindow.vassar.edu/senior_capstone/73
Peláez, Vicky. “The Prison Industry in the United States: Big Business or a New Form of Slavery?” Global Research, 28 August 2016. Available at: https://www.globalresearch.ca/the-prison-industry-in-the-united-states-big-business-or-a-new-form-of-slavery/8289
Young, Abe Louise. “BP hires prison labor to clean up spill while coastal residents struggle.” The Nation, 21 July 2010. Available at: https://www.thenation.com/article/bp-hires-prison-labor-clean-spill-while-coastal-residents-struggle/