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Sentenced to Prison Slavery

by Kevin W. Bliss

Most Americans were taught that slavery was banned in 1865 with the adoption of the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. But prisoner rights advocates note that the amendment’s exception clause actually allowed slavery to persist – in prisons.

The Thirteenth Amendment prohibits slavery and involuntary servitude, “except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.” Following the Civil War, states in the vanquished Confederacy worried that their war-torn economies would be overwhelmed by the increased cost of production incurred by plantation owners forced to pay market wages for labor since they could no longer own slaves.

But under the Thirteenth Amendment, with a workforce composed of prisoners not entitled to wages, the Southern states realized they could lease prisoners to plantations at low cost, saving them money while generating revenue for prison coffers. To this day, prisoners harvest crops at gunpoint in facilities like the Angola prison in Louisiana and the Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman.

A 2014 survey for the National Center for Education statistics found that 61 percent of the nation’s 1.5 million state and federal prisoners were employed – mostly in low-paid institutional support jobs. The federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) requires all able-bodied prisoners to work, as do most state prison systems.

Prisoners earn average wages ranging from $0.14 to $0.63 per hour in support jobs – such as in kitchens, the laundry or yard crews – according to an April 2017 state-by-state analysis by the Prison Policy Initiative. Most prisoners work for no pay at all in Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, South Carolina and Texas. 

“Forced labor for low or no wages – we have a term for that,” said Angela Hanks, a criminal justice expert with the Center for Law and Social Policy. “We call it slavery.”

Prisoners do not have opportunities to organize and bargain collectively, which are afforded to other workers by the Fair Labor Standards Act and the National Labor Relations Act. They are not considered “employees,” and thus not entitled to overtime or the federal minimum wage except in Prison Industry Enhancement (PIE) programs (and even then, up to 80 percent of their pay can be taken for various reasons). They don’t get sick days or “vacation” time.

Prisoners are also exempt from the workplace safety requirements overseen by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), and generally are not eligible for workers compensation if they suffer job-related injuries. [See: PLN, Sept. 2017, p.60].

The early practice of leasing prison labor to private businesses, known as the convict lease system, ended by 1928; seven years later Congress restricted the sale of most prisoner-made goods across state lines by passing the Ashurst-Sumners Act, 8 U.S.C. §§ 1761-62.

Today, prison industry programs like Florida’s Prison Rehabilitative Industries and Diversified Enterprises, Inc. (PRIDE), Texas Correctional Industries (TCI) and the BOP’s Federal Prison Industries (UNICOR) employ prisoners to produce everything from furniture and janitorial supplies to clothing, flags and body armor, with the professed goal of furthering rehabilitation by supplying job skills.

While the industry programs pay a bit more than institutional support positions – an average of $0.33 to $1.41 per hour, according to the Prison Policy Initiative – economists consider prisoner labor to be less efficient and cost-effective than private-sector workers, partly due to the cost of paying guards to provide security for prison industry programs.

Corrections officials claim that despite the low pay, job assignments provide prisoners with improved self-esteem, instill work ethics and prepare them for post-release employment. Other work programs involve prisoners who supply cheap labor to local communities, such as picking up trash on roadways or lawn care for public buildings. And some facilities offer work-release programs for offenders nearing the end of their sentences.

Prisoners who work in high-profile positions have to go through a vetting process. In Alabama, for example, prisoners may not work at the governor’s mansion if they are serving time for a sex crime, escape or violent crime, plus they must have a history of good behavior. Georgia prisoners have to receive a referral from the Board of Pardons and Parole to work at the governor’s mansion, while prisoners in Louisiana are employed at the state capitol building.

When President Bill Clinton served as governor in Arkansas, prisoners were used to perform various household tasks at his residence. According to former First Lady Hillary Clinton, it was a longstanding tradition that kept costs down. Rules were strictly enforced and violations meant immediate removal and possible sanctions by prison officials. Having meals served by prisoner servants was “an unusual aspect of living at the governor’s mansion,” Mrs. Clinton wrote in her 1996 book, It Takes a Village.

Sam Sinyangwe, a prison reform activist, said he believes such an exploitative system uses prison labor more as a cost-cutting measure than to benefit prisoners or reduce recidivism.

“I think it would be incredibly impactful to reduce the recidivism rates by making sure that when people get out of jail, they actually have money to actually start a life,” he said. “That they are not forced to go back to the informal economy or committing crimes just to make a living.”

But due to the low wages (or in some cases no wages) that prisoners receive, it’s hard to save enough money to help with post-release expenses.

“All of this, it looks very familiar: having black laborers toiling in the fields under the eye of overseers and having a white governor served by people drawn from that same forced labor pool,” said Carl Takei, a senior staff attorney at the ACLU’s Trone Center for Justice and Equality. “When you lock people up and force them to work without providing them a fair wage, that’s called slavery,” he added.

In November 2018, Colorado voters approved an amendment that removed the exception clause for prisoner labor from the state constitution’s prohibition against slavery. A similar measure had failed in 2016, which was widely attributed to how it was worded. [See: PLN, Nov. 2017, p.40].

“Colorado is leading the way on so many progressive issues, including removing slavery from the constitution, I’m excited for what we do next,” said state Rep. Joe Salazar, who authored the bill that created the amendment.

The same cannot be said for other states whose constitutions still include the prisoner exception clause to the prohibition on slavery – as does the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which has remained unchanged for over 150 years. 



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