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…