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Contemporary Slavery: The Not-So-Secret Practice of Forced Labor Inside U.S. Prisons

by Douglas Ankney


“If we refused to work we had to stand on top of a wooden box in the sun. It was called ‘doin’ the scarecrow’ and some guys passed out from the heat”—Florida prisoner Ronald Smith, quoted by formerly incarcerated journalist Ryan Moser in Slavery and the Modern-Day Prison Plantation, JStor Daily (Nov. 2023).

That quote is not a relic of the 19th century. Smith was talking about 1988, when he was part of a “gun squad”—a group of prisoners who toiled outdoors under the eye of guards on horseback armed with 12-guage shotguns.

As PLN reported, prisons have not been left out of the modern effort to erase the names of slavers and Confederates from public buildings that once honored them. [See: PLN, Feb. 2022, p.32.] Name changes are easy. But what about the men and women caged inside the prisons, who are still routinely coerced to work for little or no pay? While most elected officials disavow any ambition to return to America’s slaveholding past, the ugly practice continues. Slavery is almost “mandated” as appropriate “punishment” for crime in the U.S. Constitution. Apparently, the United States cannot break from the desire shared by many of its founders to enslave and dehumanize people. This article briefly examines the history of forced labor in America’s penal systems; its current practice; and the slow slight winds of change seeking to bring an end to this immoral and inhumane practice.

History of Prison Slavery

Chattel slavery—the horrific practice of buying, selling, and owning other people—was legally banned after America’s Civil War in 1865. But slavery itself remained, and currently is, legal. Section One of the Thirteenth Amendment to the Federal Constitution reads:

“Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as punishment for a crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” According to the U.S. government—which in theory means the People of the United States—the immoral and reprehensible practice of slavery is both legal and acceptable as “punishment” for a crime.

For 200 years from the mid-1600s, slave plantations existed in the English colonies of North America, which became the United States. These agricultural and livestock businesses were run by masters and overseers, with slaves toiling in an oppressive atmosphere of fear and violence to harvest labor-intensive crops such as cotton, tobacco, rice and indigo. To maximize profits, plantation owners purchased enslaved Africans and their descendants, relying on their free labor while hiring white overseers to run the plantations.

The importance of the cotton trade—especially to Southern states—drove an increasing demand for enslaved labor in Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri and Texas, as well as the Carolinas, Delaware, Maryland, Tennessee and Virginia. These enslaved men and women were often treated as disposable, and they were beaten, whipped, raped, maimed and even killed at the whim of the plantation owner. According to Frances Hunter’s Slave Society on the Southern Plantation, the products of slave labor “furnished more than two-thirds of the materials of [the national] commerce.”

After the Civil War, the Southern states remained economically dependent on the free labor of slaves. In the era of “Jim Crow” laws and “Black Codes,” Black Americans were “convicted” of such crimes as “vagrancy” or “curfew violation.” Once “duly convicted” of these “offenses,” they were imprisoned. The state would then lease them to local farms and plantations. The state collected nine dollars per month per convict—but the working prisoners were paid nothing. This “convict leasing” program was very lucrative for the farm/plantation owners who received the benefit of convict labor at discounted wages. States profited, too; by 1898, approximately 73% of Alabama’s revenue came from convict leasing.

But unlike a chattel slave who held property value to his or her owner, the convicts held no similar value to the state. So they were quite frequently worked or whipped to death. David Oshinsky, historian of Mississippi’s notorious Parchman Farm—which is now the state penitentiary—noted that it was said “[n]ot a single leased convict ever lived long enough to serve a sentence of 10 years or more.”

Prisoners in the North fared little better. About 75% of all Northern prisoners were leased to factories, where they were forced to work 14 to 18 hours a day without pay. According to Captive Labor - Exploitation of Incarcerated Workers, a 2022 report from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the University of Chicago Law School (UCLS), these prisoners were brutally punished for such things as “not working fast enough, for accidentally damaging equipment, and sometimes for no reason at all.” Just as in the South, leased convicts in the North were subjected to brutal beatings and branding. In the 1890s, the equivalent of $30 billion (in today’s dollars) of goods were produced by prison slaves “leased” to Northern factories. The majority of those caught in this vicious practice were impoverished immigrants and African Americans. Pressure to end it didn’t mount until the late 19th century, when the use of convict labor in Northern factories was vigorously opposed not on humanitarian or moral grounds, but because the convicted laborers undercut jobs and wages of unionized workers. According to the report, “25 states capitulated to rising union pressure to scale back incarcerated labor programs.”

It took longer to end convict leasing in the South. But by 1928, owing to public outrage, convict leasing was outlawed. Yet the perverse hunger to demean and dehumanize prisoners was soon fed in other ways. As sprawling prison plantations spread throughout the South, prisoncrats devised a system reminiscent of antebellum slavery. “Convict guards,” each known as a “Trusty,” were used to oversee the other prisoners. These select few prisoners were given special status and privileges—some were even armed with rifles—to keep the other prison slaves obedient and working. A pardon could be earned for shooting an escaping prisoner.

However, the trusties abused their positions. They preyed on the other prisoners with sexual violence, extortion and arbitrary abuses of authority that were condoned because of the money they saved in guard salaries. When the practice was specifically prohibited in Mississippi by Gates v. Collier, 501 F.2d 1291 (5th Cir. 1974), and then extended to Texas in Ruiz v. Estelle, 679 F.2d 1115 (5th Cir. 1982), the state of Texas had to double its paid staff of prison guards.

Coinciding with the rise of sprawling plantation prisons was the proliferation of “chain gangs.” Originating in Georgia in the 1890s, crews of prisoners bound together by heavy chains were forced to work outside prison grounds. The practice of forcing these chained prisoners to build roads quickly spread to every state except Rhode Island. Other hard labor tasks such as digging ditches, breaking rocks and performing highway maintenance were soon thrust upon the chain gangs. Shotgun-toting guards, often mounted on horses, whipped prisoners they deemed to be lagging or whom the guards simply did not like.

In 1934, the U.S. Congress authorized the Federal Prison Industries program (known today as UNICOR), permitting federal prisoners to manufacture goods for government agencies. Most state prison systems adopted similar programs. Again, union opposition to the price advantage conferred by free prison slave labor prompted legislation to prohibit the sale of prison-made goods to private individuals and companies. By 1979, though, Congress bowed to prison profiteers and amended a 1935 law that had made interstate transportation of most prison-made goods a federal crime.

As amended, the Prison Industry Enhancement Certification Program (PIECP) permits prisons and private industries to partner in manufacturing goods using prisoner labor. Many states have since followed suit.

Current State of Affairs

In December 2023, a group of Alabama prisoner plaintiffs filed Council v. Ivey, USDC (M.D. Ala.), Case No. 2:23-cv-00712, accusing the state Board of Pardons and Paroles of denying them parole simply so that the state Department of Corrections (DOC) may continue profiting from the prisoners’ labor. As PLN reported, the plaintiffs—all of whom are Black—allege they are “leased” to 575 private firms and 100 government agencies which have profited from the forced labor system, enjoying a $450 million annual windfall over the past five years by using prisoners for landscaping, sanitation, metal fabrication, and fast-food work. [See PLN, Mar. 2024, p.34.]

Although the firms are required by law to pay minimum wage, that is well below what the average free-world worker in these industries earns. Alabama’s minimum wage of $7.25 an hour—enacted in July 2009—pays $290 for a 40-hour workweek. But the Federal Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that the average weekly wage paid by Alabama firms to leisure and hospitality workers, which includes the fast-food industry to which many prisoners are leased, was $430 for the first quarter of 2023. The difference was pocketed by the firms who leased the prisoner workers. Plus, DOC takes a minimum of 40% of whatever the firms pay to the prisoners. Joining with the prisoners in the suit are: the Union of Southern Service Workers; and the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union, Mid-South Council. Like their predecessors in the 19th and 20th centuries, these unions argued that “the artificially low wages that the prisoners are forced to accept for toiling in fast food and poultry processing have frustrated attempts to unionize workers in those industries,” the prisoners’ complaint noted.

However, the lion’s share of industries operating within today’s prisons are owned by the state. These industrial jobs are often touted for providing employment training. But rarely are any marketable skills taught. Generally, prisoners produce supplies for government agencies, such as office furniture, or they manufacture clothing and cleaning supplies for the prisoner population. Around 791,000 prisoners in America currently work, and the overwhelming majority earns pennies an hour. Only about 7.3% of all prisoners work industrial jobs, most of which are owned and operated by the state but with an ever-increasing number of private businesses using prisoner labor.

Seven states—Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, South Carolina, and Texas—pay their prison slaves nothing. It is hardly coincidental that those seven states were also the sites of antebellum slave plantations. Parchman Farm, the 18,000-acre state prison farm that Mississippi designed like a plantation, opened in 1901 strictly for Black prisoners. Even after white prisoners arrived in 1917, racial segregation in separate housing “camps” was strictly enforced. The complex endures today as the state penitentiary, and it is often described as “the closest thing to slavery that survived the civil war.” A disproportionate number of African Americans right now toil on the same ground as their enslaved ancestors, 12 hours every day in 100-degree heat, picking broccoli, squash and cotton for no pay.

The degrading practice is not restricted to Mississippi, though. Forty-seven-year-old prisoner Stone Norris said that in South Carolina, he and other state prisoners “worked the hay fields all day, stepping in human feces that farmers got from the nearby wastewater plant for fertilizer.” The Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Statistics reported in 2000 that about 29% of carceral facilities operated farms or other agricultural activities; with 373 facilities having farming or agricultural work programs. About 2.2% of America’s prisoners work in farming, with the majority of those in the South.

By far, though, most prisoners work menial jobs simply maintaining the lockups that hold them: “More than 95 percent of public prisons and nearly 90 percent of private prisons have work programs that employ incarcerated people to support and maintain” the prisons that cage them, the ACLU/UCLS report noted. Government is the biggest beneficiary of prison slave labor. Prisoners produce over $2 billion in goods and perform $9 billion worth of prison support and maintenance—all of which goes to the state at next to no cost. Of the prisoners surveyed for the report, about 80% were in those facility-support jobs, with 30% working janitorial positions and 20% in food preparation.

Even where prisoners are paid, the echoes of slavery are too loud to ignore. Earning eight cents an hour, or less, cannot seriously be considered making a “wage.” Prisoners who are faced with the choice of working or being confined in segregation—or hit with some other punishment—cannot be said to provide their labor willingly. Moreover, this forced work is often done without proper training or safety equipment. But there is almost never Workmen’s Compensation paid when fingers or limbs are cut off or prisoners suffer other injuries. No social security deductions or payments are made on their behalf, either. There are of course no other programs to help finance their inevitable retirement. Nothing.

Winds of Change Fighting Winds of Resistance

In 2018, voters in Colorado amended their state constitution to ban slave labor inside state prisons. That made it the second state after Rhode Island in 1842 to purposefully abolish slavery “without exception.” The Alabama prisoner plaintiffs who filed Council v. Ivey note that state voters adopted a new constitution in November 2022 that eliminates any exception for prisoners to the state’s ban on slavery—one of six states to follow Colorado in making this change to the state constitution, along with Nebraska, Oregon, Tennessee, Utah and Vermont, as PLN reported. [See: PLN, Apr. 2023, p.63.] In at least nine other states lawmakers have introduced similar bills. Nevada residents will vote on an initiative to abolish forced slavery in prisons in 2024. But as of May 2023, 16 state constitutions still allowed exception to their slavery bans for prisoners.

On the federal level, lawmakers from Oregon, Georgia and New Jersey have reintroduced legislation to revise the Thirteenth Amendment two times, with the latest effort on June 13, 2023. It is mainly supported by Democrats. Co-sponsor Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) declared, “It’s unacceptable that our Constitution allows slavery. It’s way past time to remedy this clause.” Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) has sponsored the Fair Wages for Incarcerated Workers Act and Correctional Facilities Occupational Safety and Health Act, seeking to shore up protections for prisoners who work. As noted by Kamau Allen, cofounder of the Abolish Slavery National Network, the drive to abolish prisoner slavery is a “fast-moving train.”

But as PLN reported, the Colorado DOC was still issuing disciplinary reports to prisoners who refused to work five years after state voters adopted the constitutional amendment to end the practice—a total of nearly 14,000 infractions since 2019. Meanwhile a suit filed by state prisoners Richard Lilgerose and Harold Mortis in February 2022 is seeking an injunction to prohibit DOC officials from charging prisoners with Class 2 disciplinary violations for refusing to work. The Class 2 charges carry possible sanctions of solitary confinement and loss of “good time” sentence reduction credits. In an August 2023 ruling, the state judge hearing the case held that loss of a privilege like good time credits may not violate the constitution, but isolation, like physical punishment, may be a violation. [See: PLN, Apr. 2024, p.13.]

Michael Gibson-Light, Assistant Professor of Sociology and Criminology at the University of Denver, observed that “slavery was not abolished” by the Thirteenth Amendment. “[I]t just changed,” he said, so that “now the justifications were different. They had to do with law breaking. They had to do with vagrancy. They had to do, eventually, with drug use.” These are all the “crimes” that have driven mass incarceration, and the modern-day leasing of men and women convicted and locked up for them. Former DOC prisoner Abron Arrington added that he “was actually 30 years a slave,” referring to his long period of incarceration. Most of that time Arrington spent in isolation for refusing to work a 13-cents-an-hour prison job preferring instead to study for his physics degree. He was granted clemency and released in 2019.

Community organizer Kym Ray of nonprofit Together Colorado said that the point of efforts to end DOC’s forced-work policy was not to stop prisoners from the benefit of work programs but “to give people the choice.” Gibson-Light agreed, saying, “[t]here’s a reason it’s called the Emancipation Proclamation, not the compensation proclamation. It’s not a question about wages. The question is about freedom.”

DOC still pays prisoners as little as 13 cents an hour. But some jobs rise to $2 an hour—still paltry, though a princely sum by comparison. However, the real profits go to about 100 Colorado companies that benefit from the prisoners’ labor at wages far below market. Also benefitting are the state and local governments that use underpaid prison slaves for maintenance, housekeeping, and even dangerous work like firefighting.

Colorado’s DOC, like most prison systems, attempts to justify its abusive labor practices by claiming prisoners benefit from the work experience and training post-release. Gibson-Light gave the lie to that, noting that “[y]ou can be a barber and make good money, but you get out and you can’t get a barber license if you have a record.”

The truth that prison jobs provide little to no post-release employment opportunities is revealed indirectly by DOC in its primary means to get prisoners to take these jobs: A threat of punishment. If the jobs had intrinsic value, prisoners would be willing to work them—not to avoid punishment, but to enjoy the benefits they offer.

Valerie Collins, an attorney with Toward Justice who represents Lilgerose and Mortise in their suit, said that arguing about wages “muddies the waters.” “We did not bring wage claims,” she said, “to keep the focus on the forced nature of the work itself, in the coercion that is used to extract the labor.” Ray also had concerns other than wages. She wanted more protections and training for prisoners, many of whom “have lost fingers because they’re working on faulty equipment or equipment they haven’t been properly trained on.”

A Win Brewing for Migrant Detainees

Closely related to the issue of prison slavery is the abuse of non-convicted detainees for their labor. In December 2021, the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington ordered private prison operator GEO Group to pay $37,585,387.61 in damages, attorneys’ fees, costs and interest in a lawsuit that alleged GEO failed to pay minimum wage to migrant detainees held at the Northwest Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Processing Center in Tacoma.

The Center is a 1,575-bed facility that has been owned and operated by GEO since 2005. Under contract with ICE, the firm confines people caught up in civil immigration proceedings. GEO is under contract to receive $700,292,089.08—or about $70,000,000 a year—to operate the Center. And with the exception of one abnormally low year, between 2010 and 2018 GEO reported annual profits ranging from $18,600,000 to $23,500,000. Those colossal profits enabled the generous executives of GEO to pay the immigrant detainee laborers—the ones who cooked, cleaned, and maintained the Center—a whopping one dollar every day.

In 2017, a group of 11,689 Detainees (Plaintiff Class)—along with Washington’s Attorney General—sued GEO, alleging that the $1 pay per day violated Washington’s Minimum Wage Act (MWA). The State and Plaintiff Class argued that they were employees and thus entitled to lawful wages under MWA. After an initial mistrial, the individual cases were severed at a second trial in the District Court. There a jury agreed with the State and the Plaintiff Class members, awarding $17,297,063.05 in damages to Plaintiff Class and finding GEO liable to the State for unjust profits in the amount of $5,950,340. That made a total damages award of $23,247,403.05. GEO sought remittitur of the Plaintiff Class damages, but the District Court denied GEO’s motion on December 8, 2021. See: Nwauzor v. GEO GRP., Inc., 2021 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 235308 (W.D. Wash.). However, because the cases were severed at the second trial, each Plaintiff Class member subsequently sought individual attorney fees. Four law firms represented the Plaintiff Class members.

Schroeter Goldmark & Bender of Seattle sought fees of $1,047,921.20 based on hourly rates between $300 and $500 for the services of attorneys Adam Berger, Kelli Carson, Lindsay Halm, Carson Phillips-Spotts, Rebecca J. Roe, Page Ulrey and Jamal Whitehead. These outstanding attorneys had experience ranging from six years to more than 30 years. The fee also included $170 per hour for paralegals.

Menter Immigration Law, PLLC, also of Seattle, sought fees totaling $33,355.00. The fee was based on the superb services of attorney Monica Menters, who had 20 years’ experience but charged only $350 an hour.

Attorney Deven Theriot-Orr of Open Sky Law, PLLC in Kent requested $450 an hour for his exceptional service. Theriot-Orr also had 20 years’ experience and his total requested fee was $61,412.60. The Law Offices of R. Andrew Fee in Nashville also sought fees totaling $147,012.50 based on a rate of $475 an hour for the Tennessee attorney’s supreme skill after 10 years’ experience.

Additionally, the State requested hourly rates of $320 to $417 for Assistant Attorneys General La Rond Baker, Andrea Brenneke, Marsha Chien, Patricia Marquez and Lane Polozola, all of whom have between 10 and 30 years of experience. The State requested an additional $191 an hour for an investigator and $136 an hour for a paralegal. The district court found all these fees were reasonable. Due to the difficulty of the case, the skill of the attorneys and the fact that they had represented the Plaintiff Class on a contingency basis, the district court added a 10% multiplier, though the State did not ask for one. The district court also decided that the State’s claim of unjust enrichment was sufficiently connected to a claim for lost wages to justify an award of attorney fees under MWA and the Wage Payment Collection Act, RCW 49.48.030. Since the State had additional discovery burdens and had to litigate in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, whereas Plaintiff Class counsel did not, the district court determined the State was entitled to greater fees.

The district court rejected GEO’s argument that attorney fees associated with the mistrial and fees for conferences between Plaintiff Class counsel and the State should be deducted. The district court concluded the fees were within reason and that preparation for the first trial could not reasonably be separated from the second trial. Altogether, the district court allowed $6,058,922.92 in attorney fees. However, regarding costs, the district court reduced the amount sought by Plaintiff Class counsel and the State. The court determined that the costs for equipment associated with Zoom calls were not recoverable. With deductions, the district court allowed $191,398.07 in costs. GEO is liable for the $6,250,320.99 in fees and costs regardless of any appeals it might seek. See: Washington v. GEO GRP., Inc., 2021 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 238987 (W.D. Wash.); and Nwauzor v. GEO GRP., Inc., 2021 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 238949 (W.D. Wash.).

The district court further determined that GEO owed an additional $8,087,663.57 in prejudgment interest on Plaintiff Class’s damage award. The interest will continue to accrue at a statutory rate of 0.14%. See: Nwauzor v. GEO GRP., Inc., 2021 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 235292 (W.D. Wash.). As of December 13, 2021, that meant GEO was liable for a total of $37,585,387.61.

GEO turned to the Ninth Circuit, appealing the jury’s award of nearly $23.3 million in damages to Plaintiff Class and the State. In turn, the Ninth Circuit certified questions of law to the Supreme Court of Washington (SCOW), asking whether MWA applied to the detainees at the Center. See: Nwauzor v. GEO Grp., Inc., 62 F.4th 509 (9th Cir. 2023). In what may be fairly characterized as an ominous harbinger for GEO, the nine justices of SCOW unanimously held in December 2023 that MWA applied to the detainees.

Associate Justice Charles W. Johnson authored the opinion, writing: “The certified questions in this case concern a challenge to a private, for-profit corporation’s practice of paying civil immigration detainees less than Washington’s minimum wage to work in its private detention center. We are asked to determine whether Washington’s [MWA] applies to detained workers in a privately owned and operated detention facility. We conclude that it does.” See: Nwauzor v. GEO Grp., Inc., 540 P.3d 93 (Wash. 2023).

Adam Berger, one of the attorneys representing Plaintiff Class, told local media: “This confirms what we’ve been saying all along, which is that detainees at the Northwest Detention Center who were cleaning, cooking, and maintaining the facility were employees of the company under Washington law, and should have been paid the state minimum wage, not a dollar a day for their labor.” Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson (D) called SCOW’s ruling “a major victory for Washington workers and basic human dignity.” The appeal will now proceed at the Ninth Circuit, and PLN will update developments as they are available. See: Washington v. GEO GRP., Inc., USCA (9th Cir.), Case No. 22-35027.

Federal courts—both the district and appellate circuit—are bound by the highest state court’s interpretation of a state statute. Consequently, the Ninth Circuit may not conduct its own interpretation of MWA and conclude that it does not apply to the Detainees. That does not mean, however, that the Ninth Circuit cannot reverse the district court judgment on other grounds.


Though chattel slavery was abolished almost 160 years ago, the immoral and inhumane practice of slavery is kept alive as “punishment for a crime.” By failing to right this wrong, America also fails to come to terms with its racist past. Because slavery, like the genocide of indigenous Americans, is either immoral and reprehensible—or it is not. There is no middle ground. We do not have provisions that say “raping preteen children is prohibited except in cases of ....” When something is immoral and reprehensible, there are no viable or compelling exceptions.

The practice of forced labor inherent in prison slavery is reprehensible in and of itself. That private industries should also profit from it is beyond outrageous. An AP News report in late January 2024 revealed that prisoner labor is used to produce an enormous number of products found in most American kitchens “from Frosted Flakes and Ball Park hot dogs to Gold Medal flour, Coca-Cola and Riceland rice.” Prisoners work for minimal wages—some for no pay at all—in farming and production and have helped created a multi-billion dollar empire for the benefit of companies like McDonalds and Walmart.

Yet prisoners do not have the safety or scheduling protections that workers on the outside have, and they face harsh consequences if they refuse to work. Even if sick or injured, a prisoner is required to work; if he or she refuses, that can be punished by solitary confinement, suspension of privileges or even changes to an anticipated release date. In the worst-case scenario prisoners die while performing forced prison labor duties.

One was Alabama prisoner Frank Dwayne Ellington. Sentenced to life in prison with the possibility of parole after stealing a man’s wallet at gunpoint, the 33-year-old was killed in 2017 while cleaning a machine near the chicken kill line at Koch Foods. The whirling teeth of the machine grabbed his arm and pulled him inside crushing his skull. Death was instantaneous.

The penal system is purportedly connected to “justice.” And that includes the notion of putting things right. But how does using prisoner labor to profit private firms accomplish that? How does it in any way benefit victims of crime? If anyone could lay a possible claim to the fruits of a prisoner’s labors, it would be the victim or victims who were harmed by that prisoner—not corporate executives seeking to line their own pockets.

Further, as labor unions correctly point out, using prisoner slave labor in industry harms those law-abiding unincarcerated citizens seeking to earn a living in that industry. America’s economy operates within a capitalist, profit-driven engine arguably like none other before it. Where extreme gains may be made off the backs of others, exploitation and manipulation are sure to follow. But it does not follow that the machinations should be legal or condoned.

The paltry or nonexistent pay is not the real depravity of prison slavery. Instead, it is the forced labor; the punishing of people for simply refusing to be exploited. Whether it be putting the person in isolation; extending his or her period of confinement through loss of good time credits; or even a decrease in available hours for visitation, it is simply wrong to punish a person in any manner for refusing to be exploited. Broadly speaking, some incarcerated persons are victimizers. That is, many criminal offenses involve perpetrators and victims. But the answer cannot be the further victimization of the victimizer. As a wise person once observed, the penalty for rape is not to rape the rapist.

The SCOW ruling is laudable, but its value to the ongoing battle to end prison slavery is limited. First, the ruling applies to civil immigration detainees. These people, although incarcerated, have not been duly convicted of any crime. Therefore, the Thirteenth Amendment is inapplicable to them. Second, the ruling is based entirely on state law. And minimum wage laws vary from state to state. While it may seem that the process of ending prison slavery is a fast-moving train, it must have just recently left the station. If only seven states have abolished prisoner slavery in 160 years, that means 43 states and the federal government condone the practice. In other words, the overwhelming majority of Americans are yet in favor of slavery—regardless of how loudly their mouths may protest otherwise.

Florida prisoner Ronald Smith summed up the reality. While working on a prison crew assigned to cleaning along highways, he said: “When our bus pulled up to the side of the road, people passing in cars would throw beer cans at us and call us niggas ... just like back in the day. Nothing has changed.”


Additional sources: AP News, CNN, NPR News, Tacoma News-Tribune

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Nwauzor v. GEO Grp., Inc.

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