Royal Chicano Air Force ~ workshop
"The 13th Amendment, when it abolished slavery, did so except for convicts. Through the prison system, the vestiges of slavery have persisted." ~ Angela Davis
Every now and then we get a piece of information that makes us sit up and take notice. My moment came recently when reading up on prison labor in the United States.
We all know that prisoners work while they are incarcerated. Aside from the familiar task of making license plates, there are still chain gangs employed throughout the south and several states have explored the use of prison labor to work the agricultural fields after Latino immigrants fled the tough immigration laws enacted in some southern states, namely Georgia and Alabama.
We may also know that prisoners are often paid, albeit very little money for their labor. But how many realize that that by nature of being in prison, as mandated by our Constitution, prisoners could be compelled or even forced to work and that payment is entirely optional?
And how many of us know that our Constitution specifically states that prisoners are slaves?
The Thirteenth Amendment was enacted to end slavery in this country but what most people do not realize is that it never ended slavery for those who are incarcerated. The language is very clear in Section 1 (emphasis mine):
“Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”
Those are chilling words to read in what most of us hold up to be an infallible document—the highest law of the land. Even more disturbing is that this Amendment was used to carry on the legacy of slavery in the south in a most horrible fashion long after the Civil War was over and, it can be argued, is still being used to justify slave labor today.
An overlooked part of our history is that the southern states capitalized on the prison slavery loophole in the Thirteenth Amendment for many years when they incarcerated and farmed out as prison labor vast numbers of mostly African Americans during the Convict Lease System, which was in place from 1846 to 1928.
Under the Convict Lease System, southern blacks were arrested for minor “crimes," such as vagrancy, and were imprisoned in a hugely corrupt, violent and unjust system of forced labor for private businesses, including plantation owners and railroad and coal mining companies. As the writer Douglas A. Blackmon wrote of the system:
"It was a form of bondage distinctly different from that of the antebellum South in that for most men, and the relatively few women drawn in, this slavery did not last a lifetime and did not automatically extend from one generation to the next. But it was nonetheless slavery – a system in which armies of free men, guilty of no crimes and entitled by law to freedom, were compelled to labor without compensation, were repeatedly bought and sold, and were forced to do the bidding of white masters through the regular application of extraordinary physical coercion."
Finally, in 1928 after a highly publicized death by flogging of a young man named Martin Tabert-- a slave convict whose original crime was riding a freight train-- the Convict Lease System was dismantled, not because of a change to the Constitution, but because it became politically untenable to allow it to continue.
But profiting off of prison labor has never gone away and now, thanks to ALEC (the American Legislative Exchange Council – an organization of global corporations and legislators who meet behind closed doors to write laws to benefit corporations) it is now once again the status quo to take financial advantage of US prison labor.
Through cleverly worded ALEC sponsored legislation, namely the Prison Industries Enhancement Certification Program and the Prison Industries Act, state, federal and private prisons can use prisoners to labor in many different jobs to bring in more money to support the prison and, in the case of private prisons, to increase the corporation’s bottom line.
Companies hiring prison labor through ALEC-created laws pay minimum wage but the prisons deduct large portions of these wages for not only incarceration costs, but to go towards profits and building new prisons while they often give the prisoners just pennies per hour for their work.
This, coupled with other prison-friendly ALEC legislation such as Arizona’s immigration law, SB1070, the “Three Strikes” laws as well as the infamous “War on Drugs," serves to increase incarceration rates so as to guarantee a large involuntary “workforce." Along with a push by right wing governors like Scott Walker of Wisconsin to demolish union held public sector jobs and replace them with prison labor, we’re seeing a very ominous turn of events happening:
It’s known as the Prison Industrial Complex and it’s a multi-billion dollar industry.
It’s also a fact that the prison system is inherently racist in its makeup. As law professor and writer Michelle Alexander has famously noted in her pivotal book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, there are now more African Americans in prison and on parole than were slaves in 1850. This is yet another indication that slavery, in a disturbing manifestation of its old form, is still very much alive and well.
Another throwback to slavery is the fact that convicted felons also have their right to vote taken away. Even those who have done their time and paid their price to society often never fully regain their civil rights and 5.3 million people in the USA remain disenfranchised today.
Some may be under the impression that prison labor is voluntary but this isn’t true in many places. The law in various states requires all able bodied prisoners to work and some say that they are compelled to work punishing hours even if they are unable, as is anecdotally evidenced in this letter from a female inmate who was forced to work in the fields of Martori Farms in Arizona :
“Ok it’s about my job. I work on a work crew for Martori Farms. We work 6 days a week for 8 hrs. It’s a mandatory overtime job. We work the fields hoeing weeds and thinning plants currently until it’s harvest time then it will be 12 hrs a day. It’s insane. Currently we are forced to work in the blazing sun for 8 hrs. Many times we run out of water several times a day. We ran out of sunscreen several times a week. They don’t check medical backgrounds or ages before they pull women for these jobs. Many of us cannot do it! And if we stop working and sit on the bus or even just take an unauthorized break we get a MAJOR ticket which takes away our “good time”!"
While the defenders of prison labor legislation may argue that this type of forced work builds a strong work ethic in criminals I would counter that slave labor is never good labor. If prisoners want to work then it should be voluntarily and they should be paid a fair wage, not forcibly compelled to be income generators for those who have incarcerated them. Furthermore, any system that incentivizes locking people up for profit to get cheap exploitable labor is inherently evil. Period.
It’s considered bad practice and immoral to import goods made with slave labor from other countries. There are often boycotts enacted against products like chocolate or Indian rugs that are known to utilize slaves in their production. Given this, I’m sure most would be shocked to hear that we have legalized slavery in our prison systems and that products created right here at home may be slave-produced—everything from breaded chicken patties to guided missile parts to office furniture. How is it that we’re disgusted and repelled when we hear that China uses prison slave labor and yet we ignore it when it happens on our own soil?
Lacking a change to the Constitution (something that is never easy to do) the only recourse we have against prison slavery is through the court of public opinion. There is one argument out there that private prisons’ use of captive labor to fatten their coffers may not be Constitutional after all but that’s a case that has yet to be made before the Supreme Court.
One thing I do know is that it’s time to wake up to the fact that our flawed Thirteenth Amendment has allowed corporations to reinstate their version of a Convict Lease System in order to accumulate vast wealth for those at the very top.
Because of ALEC-created laws that are designed to incarcerate more and more people and our failed War on Drugs, we now shamefully have the largest prison population in the entire world, over 2.2 million human beings. These are people who are nothing more than slaves.
And that’s just wrong.
“For private business, prison labor is like a pot of gold. No strikes. No union organizing. No health benefits, unemployment insurance or workers’ compensation to pay. No language barriers, as in foreign countries. New leviathan prisons are being built on thousands of eerie acres of factories inside the walls. Prisoners do data entry for Chevron, make telephone reservations for TWA, raise hogs, shovel manure, make circuit boards, limousines, waterbeds, and lingerie for Victoria’s Secret—all at a fraction of the cost of “free labor”
~quote from Eve Goldberg and Linda Evans from Masked Racism: Reflections of the Prison Industrial Complex by Angela Davis