Prisoners or Slaves?

The 13th Amendment outlawed slavery, but did you know that it carved out an exception? In actuality, the 13th  Amendment says that it forbids slavery and involuntary servitude, “except as punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.” Translation:  the Constitution permits enslavement of convicted prisoners. This has meant that current prisoners, in state and federal prisons, are often forced to work against their will, under threat of severe punishment. And prisons don’t have to pay them a thing for their work. Instead, governments and private prison companies are raking in the money with their captive supply of free labor by selling prisoners’ goods and services. Is it any wonder that we have a mass incarceration problem?

Typically inmates are paid only a nominal pittance for their forced labor. Federal prisoners are the “lucky ones” relatively speaking, earning between 12 and 40 cents an hour. In Colorado and Arizona, prisoners earn only a few cents per hour; in Texas, Alabama and Georgia, incarcerated people are forced to work for free.  In prisons with forced labor programs, anyone who is medically capable but refuses the forced labor can be placed in solitary confinement, lose family visiting privileges, lose good time credit, or be otherwise harshly punished.

This forced labor enriches insiders, giving a financial incentive to keep the pipeline of cheap labor flowing. Some prisoners are forced to work to keep the prison running: cleaning, grounds keeping, cooking, washing laundry. But at many prisons, the inmates’ labor is sold to outside companies. Companies using goods or services taken by forced prison labor include Walmart, McDonald’s, Victoria’s Secret, Nordstrom’s, AT&T Wireless, and (until it was called out on it) Whole Foods. Forced prison labor is all over our markets. Prisoners produce military uniforms and sometimes even staff service call centers for companies. A business within the Arizona Department of Corrections claims that it contracted for 2 million labor hours from prisoners last year. And that’s just state prisoners in Arizona.

The United States incarcerates more than 2.2 million people, the largest prison population in the world. This population is heavily skewed, disproportionately incarcerating people of color. When you do the math, it is obvious that this free labor force is part of the drive behind our country’s mass incarceration problem. It’s no coincidence that there was a huge increase in convictions and prison sentence lengths just as more and more states (37 of them and the federal government to date) legalized contracting out prison labor to private companies.


It hasn’t been reported by the mainstream press, but tomorrow, September 9, 2016, prisoners across 24 states have organized and coordinated a prison strike. The strike is to protest these forced labor programs, along with other prison-specific inhumane conditions, like deadly heat (above 150 degrees Fahrenheit) in Texas prisons and poisonous drinking water in prisons in several states. The strike has been set for the anniversary of the Attica prison strike, which shut down New York’s notorious prison 45 years ago. The strikers are calling upon all of us, inside and outside prison, to support the strike:

Our protest against prison slavery is a protest against the school to prison pipeline, a protest against police terror, a protest against post-release controls. When we abolish slavery, they’ll lose much of their incentive to lock up our children, they’ll stop building traps to pull back those who they’ve released. When we remove the economic motive and grease of our forced labor from the US prison system, the entire structure of courts and police, of control and slave-catching must shift to accommodate us as humans, rather than slaves. Prison impacts everyone. When we stand up and refuse on September 9th, 2016, we need to know our friends, families and allies on the outside will have our backs.

We are all part of a corrupt system that profits from the control and subjugation – the forced, unpaid labor – of prisoners. At the very least, we can bear witness to tomorrow’s strike and publicly support this important call to justice.



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