Neither Slavery Nor Involuntary Servitude… Except As A Punishment For Crime

Female chain gang marching to a bus that will transport them to a work site outside Estrella Jail in Phoenix, Arizona. (Photograph: Jim Lo Scalzo/EPA)

Some are attempting to add a new name to the list of trafficked persons that make up the modern slave trade: the incarcerated American.  In the past, media outlets and activists have denounced prison labor practices in areas in such as China but the light is now being shone on  the U.S. prison system.

Currently, Federal and State laws do not acknowledge inmates (in labor programs) as trafficked persons. Human trafficking  is the illegal trade in human beings for the purposes of commercial sexual exploitation or forced labor. In the case of adults, Federal and state laws require that there be evidence of force, fraud, or coercion.

Section 1.of the 13th amendment states “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.”

In other words…

“The state has the authority to enslave you simply by convicting you of a crime and sending you to prison or requiring community service through state approved agencies.”

What rights do incarcerated persons have? Should there be reform of the American prison system, federal and state laws, and the U.S. Constitution to address potential acts of slavery?

Though it is not the focus here, it should be acknowledged that there are government-run companies that use this prison labor to turn huge profits by underbidding everyone. UNICOR is a government run company inside the federal prison system that makes everything from drywall to office chairs in factories on prison property.

 The specific issue being addressed here is what happens once private prison companies such as Corrections Corporation of America and G4S are in control of these prisons and they sell inmate labor, at sub-minimum wages, to Fortune 500 corporations like Chevron, AT&T, IBM and Martori Farms. Would you be shocked to learn that Martori Farms is a leading suppliers of agricultural produce to that paragon of corporate virtue, Walmart?

The first concern is “who should be served by the practice of prison labor?”. Would it be best for these projects to be government-headed projects that serve the needs of the country, rather than giving massive (sometimes corrupt) corporations cheap/free labor and taking jobs away from the unemployed?

Do we want prison labor to continue to be a private industry, mostly benefiting the rich, or is it better for prison profits to help pay for all costs associated with maintaining inmates, compensating victims, increasing public revenue, financing needed programs etc…?

Imprisonment costs taxpayers billions of dollars. If we are limited to private corporation labor programs, wouldn’t the government and the people be best served by having companies pay minimum wage (or perhaps a slight reduction for contributing to this program) and then pay a portion to the inmates, using the remainder to pay for the inmates incarceration costs.

Once we’ve answered the aforementioned question we must consider the issue of punishment versus rehabilitation. If all of these private corporations start using prison populations as their work force and making huge profits, where is the incentive to rehabilitate the prisoners? America already incarcerates more people than any other country on earth. If the company starts depending on prison labor then they will find ways to keep the prisons full. This is a slippery slope. Forcing companies to pay something comparable to minimum wage could assist in eliminating the desire to keep prisons heavily populated.

Ninety-seven percent of 125,000 federal inmates have been convicted of non-violent crimes. It is believed that more than half of the 623,000 inmates in municipal or county jails are innocent of the crimes they are accused of. Of these, the majority are awaiting trial. Two-thirds of the one million state prisoners have committed non-violent offenses. Sixteen percent of the country’s 2 million prisoners suffer from mental illness. Who is benefiting to keep these people imprisoned? They are after all, a captive (pun intended) audience for the greediest of our government and our corporations.

Is there and should there be any return for the inmate when it comes to prison labor? Perhaps prison labor could amount to sentence reduction. Then the door would be open to rehabilitation and recuperation, with incentives going towards work that has to do with bettering society. Education could be included in order to qualify inmates. And if you obtain degrees from those studies it could be commensurable with time taken off your sentence.

In 1979, Congress created the Prison Industry Enhancement Certification Program (known as PIE; pdf) to provide employment opportunities. Theoretically, this program addressed all the concerns found here. It provided prisoners a chance to contribute to their own upkeep, gave them a chance to gain necessary job skills, and allowed them to engage in productive activities while incarcerated. Theoretically…


6 thoughts on “Neither Slavery Nor Involuntary Servitude… Except As A Punishment For Crime

  1. [The following is from Kira via facebook]

    Have you read “The New Jim Crow?” I’m about 1/3 of the way through, and you should totally read it. Although I’m not sure if I agree with every aspect of her conspiracy theory argument, she provides an excellent discussion of the damage done by the “war on drugs” and privatized prisons. Even most libertarians I know agree that prisons should remain public institutions. There is just something very, VERY wrong with providing a huge fiscal incentive to take away freedom from as many people as possible.

  2. [The following is from Travis via facebook]

    The New Jim Crow is required reading, but I agree she does make the whole thing seem a little more supervillainous than I think likely. Systemic evil does not require a secret cabal of bad people to run it. That’s what makes it so bad.

    The 13th amendment loophole is really troubling, but the prison labor issue is difficult. It is hard not to look at the pay rates (UNICOR pays 23 cents to $1.15 per hour) and not see them as exploitative at the least. But among the inmates I’ve talked to about it (a small sample, admittedly) the jobs there are highly prized and appreciated. Partly because some money is better than none, but also because doing something productive and useful is better for the soul than doing nothing. The guys at the federal prison near here make Army uniforms, for instance. They aren’t coerced into working there, and in fact the jobs are competitive. But obviously they are in a situation where the line between coercion and choice becomes harder to define.

    • Travis,

      Thanks so much for your insight. I read a few interviews with inmates on both sides of the issue – those who appreciated any opportunity for productivity and movement and those who felt especially abused (particularly women who worked the Martori farms).

      It is incredibly complex and I don’t think the programs should be eliminated but I do believe there is desperate need for reform. There needs to be accountability and a structure that eases tax burdens on the public, does not create incentive to fill prisons, and is geared towards rehabilitation.

      • Modern day slavery/Involuntary Servitude make’s the rich, richer. Where we created to slave for the next man and do his dues?No, we are here to due positive dues for others. The prison systems is a billion dollar profiting system in the US and you should already know why. As we know it, minorities are the main target, especially in the South. Why do innocent men get sentenced based on no evidence? Why are there so many petty laws being made? Why is the unemployment rate sky high, when they claim it’s getting better? When these ex felons get out, they give them a hard time finding work because of a new rule that certain businesses cannot hire felons. They will also have a hard time finding a place to lay their heads because of the no felon rule. So, I guess after they have been unfairly trialed, used, and abused, they leave them ass out when they are released from prison. This is some sick minded irrelevant bullshit. What kind of sick ass world is this? Instead of them trying to make a profits off of prisoners due to their greediness for material possessions and evil intentions, they should let the prisoners volunteer freely to do positive things in helping others.

  3. Pingback: Unless They Want Dangerous and Disgusting Prisons, States Should Run Screaming From the Corrections Corporation of America « Habari Gani, America!

  4. Pingback: Unless They Want Dangerous and Disgusting Prisons, States Should Run Screaming From the Corrections Corporation of America |

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