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The Politic Blog

No More Exceptions: Abolish Prison Slavery

Last fall, prisoners across the country mounted strikes to protest poor prison conditions and criminal justice disparities. In particular, strikers called for “an immediate end to prison slavery”, protesting the nature of prison labor, which is often mandatory and underpaid.

Prison labor in the United States traces its roots to the Thirteenth Amendment, which abolished slavery and involuntary servitude, excepting for “punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted” in a section known as the “exception clause”.

Although the Thirteenth Amendment is often viewed through the lens of linear racial progress, the exception clause set into motion a long history of involuntary, brutal, and racialized prison labor. Journalist Douglas Blackmon traces the transition from slave labor to prison labor in his Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Slavery by Another Name.

No longer permitted to use slave labor, plantation economies increasingly turned to prison labor through the convict lease system. Under the purview of the Thirteenth Amendment’s exception clause, African Americans, many of whom were arrested on trivial and unfair charges like being unemployed, began to fill prisons at disproportionate rates. Blackmon notes how arrests surged during periods of high demand for cheap labor, showing that the incarceration of African Americans had less to do with criminality, and more to do with sustaining an economy based on slave labor.

Through the convict lease system, prisons “leased” prisoners to private companies for plantation work, and, with the industrial revolution in full swing, backbreaking industrial labor. This system was hugely profitable for these companies, who could force prisoners to work in grueling, substandard work conditions for little to no pay. Unlike slave owners, the companies were not responsible for the wellbeing of their workers, resulting in extremely high mortality rates. Under the convict lease system, companies could literally work their laborers to death, simply leasing a new and inexpensive prisoner once a prisoner died.

The racialized, slave-holding undercurrents of the prison labor system can still be seen today. Take the Louisiana State Penitentiary, for example, which is more commonly known by the name of the former slave plantation, Angola, that the prison replaced in 1880. With the world’s highest incarceration rates, Louisiana is infamously dubbed the “Prison Capital of the World”, with blacks comprising 60 percent of the prison population, despite making up just 30 percent of the state’s population. At Angola, as long as the prison doctor approves, inmates can be forced to work for anywhere from four cents to a dollar a day. As Atlantic writer Whitney Benns remarked, the scenes of Angola—black people working the fields for little to no pay, with white guards overseeing the workers—carry the “the stench of slavery and racial oppression”.

Today, the average pay scale for federal prisons ranges from 12 cents to 40 cents an hour, while the maximum pay rate at UNICOR, the federal prison industries, is just above a dollar a day. In Texas, Georgia, and six other states, prison labor can be entirely uncompensated. Deductions for things like living expenses and court costs further cut into prisoners’ paychecks, typically halving prisoners’ earnings.

But the nonexistent pay isn’t just a nasty reminder of America’s slaveholding past; it also carries very real consequences for the everyday lives of people who are incarcerated. For example, a woman who is incarcerated in Colorado will have to save for two weeks to buy a box of tampons. West Virginia prisoners have to spend an entire month’s wages to see the doctor.  

The low wages also penalize prisoners after their release. A criminal background often renders former prisoners ineligible for government benefit programs, housing, and employment. Especially as many prisoners come from impoverished backgrounds, they can have little to no savings to fall back on, devastating their ability to reintegrate into society.

In the 2018 midterms, Colorado voters struck language in its constitution that resembled the Thirteenth Amendment’s exception clause. We should follow Colorado’s example, at the state and federal level alike. There’s nothing wrong with allowing prisoners to work, but forcing prisoners to work for low pay without protections is an ugly continuation of slavery that degrades the humanity of people who are incarcerated.