The Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution 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.” This was the amendment that abolished slavery in America, ratified in 1865 after the Civil War. However, there’s a loophole in the amendment, found in the statement “except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.” This loophole makes forced labor in the United States Prison system completely legal. Slavery never ended; it was just reinvented.

The Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola is arguably America’s most infamous prison. The prison featured in Sister Helen Prejean’s renowned novel Dead Man Walking is the largest maximum security prison in the United States. It houses some of the country’s most hardened criminals; roughly 75% of prisoners are serving life sentences without possibility of parole. The short documentary Angola for Life: Rehabilitation and Reform Inside the Louisiana State Penitentiary provided an eye-opening visual of America’s new slavery.

Angola is a Southern slave-plantation-turned-prison, and the racial oppression is still felt behind the barbed wire fences. The documentary opens with the line, “The Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola is one of America’s most unusual prisons because it is, in some ways, a plantation.” When slavery was abolished with the 13th Amendment, the government had to figure out a new form of cheap labor, and they turned to inmates. According to New York’s Daily Beast, “after the Civil War, African-Americans were arrested en masse and used to replace the free labor of the slavery system.” 80% of the inmates at Angola are African American. Before the Civil War, Angola was a plantation, and there is a reasonable chance inmates are descendants of slaves who picked cotton there, performing the same backbreaking, mandatory, and essentially unpaid work as their ancestors.

At Angola, as well as many prisons nationwide, once the doctor clears an inmate for work, they’re working whether they like it or not. An article from “The Economist” states, “Prison labour is legally required in America. Most convicted inmates either work for nothing or for pennies at menial tasks that seem unlikely to boost their job prospects.” Punishments for refusing to do so include solitary confinement, loss of earned good time, and revocation of family visitation. For this forced labor, prisoners earn pennies per hour, if anything at all.

Prison labor is placed into four categories: regular prison jobs, jobs in state-owned businesses, jobs outside the facility, and jobs in private businesses, according to an article from Prison Policy Initiative. First, regular prison jobs are the most common, and they include “custodial, maintenance, laundry, grounds keeping, food service, and many other types of work,” such as picking cotton at Angola. Second, jobs in state-owned businesses are jobs for businesses who produce goods and provide services that are sold to government agencies. Third, jobs outside the facility are typically reserved for the “low-risk” inmates and those who are being released soon, and they include “work release programs, work camps, and community work centers provide services for public or nonprofit agencies.” Finally, jobs in private businesses are when private companies operate within correctional facilities and provide job training and supervision. They must pay the local minimum wage for these jobs, but up to 80% of the inmates’ earnings can be taken for various fees and never be seen by incarcerated workers.

Prison Policy Initiative also found the wages for prisoners in each state. In Utah, our minimum wage for regular prison jobs is 40 cents per hour. Our range for jobs in state-owned businesses is 60 cents per hour to $1.75 per hour. The article states, “The average of the minimum daily wages paid to incarcerated workers for non-industry prison jobs is now 86 cents… The average maximum daily wage for the same prison jobs has declined… to $3.45 today.” The wages listed on their website do not include any deductions, which in reality often leave inmates with less than half of their gross pay. There are six states that do not pay their inmates for regular prison jobs, which as I said above, is the most common form of prison labor.

In Texas, prison work is mandatory and unpaid – the literal definition of slave labor. According to the article, “How Prison Labor is the New American Slavery and Most of Us Unknowingly Support it,” “about 2,500 of Texas inmates work in the Texas prison system’s own agribusiness department, where they factory-farm 10,000 beef cattle, 20,000 pigs and a quarter million egg-laying hens. The prisoners also produce 74 million pounds of livestock feed per year, 300,000 cases of canned vegetables, and enough cotton to clothe themselves (and presumably others). They also work at meatpacking plants, where they process 14 million pounds of beef and 10 million pounds of pork per year. While one of the department’s stated goals is to reduce operational costs by having prisoners produce their own food, the prison system admittedly earns revenue from ‘sales of surplus agricultural production.’” Similar prison farms remain in Arizona, Alabama, Alaska, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Louisiana, Mississippi, Ohio and other states, where prisoners are forced to work in agriculture, logging, quarrying and mining. Five of those states (Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, and Mississippi) do not pay their workers anything, and three of those states (California, Louisiana, and Ohio) pay their workers less than 10 cents an hour.

Immoral prison labor comes in all shapes and sizes. Companies who exploit incarcerated workers include AT&T, McDonald’s, Microsoft, Starbucks, Victoria’s Secret, Walmart, Wendy’s, and Whole Foods, to name a few. McDonald’s purchases many goods from prisons, such as plastic cutlery, containers, and uniforms, which are sewn by inmates for lower wages than those who end up working in them. At Walmart, nearly all of their items are supplied by third-party prison labor factories. Their produce comes from prison farms, where “laborers are often subjected to long hours in the blazing heat without adequate food or water.” In South Carolina, a variety of lingerie and clothing, including Victoria’s Secret, were made by inmates at Leath Correctional Facility in Greenwood. The prison plant produced approximately $1.5 million worth of clothing. When two women told journalists about their work and conditions, they were placed in solitary confinement. AT&T has been using inmates in their call centers since 1993, after laying off thousands of their telephone operators in pursuit of cheaper labor. They pay incarcerated workers barely $2 per day. Whole Foods uses workers in Colorado, paid as little as 74 cents a day, to raise their protein, such as tilapia and goats.

So why do prisoners need money? Wages allow incarcerated people to purchase personal items not provided by the prison, pay ever-increasing fees, and bridge the gap after release. Many items are not provided or provided scarcely by prisons, such as feminine hygiene supplies, as I mentioned in one of my previous posts. They have to purchase pretty much everything above the barest necessities (and sometimes those too) with their hard-earned pennies. In many prisons, the hourly wage is less than the cost of a simple chocolate bar at the commissary. Saving up for a $10 phone card would take almost two weeks for an incarcerated person working in a Pennsylvania prison. Some of them have legal fines to pay off and families to support on the other side of the fences. Often they come out more indebted than when they went in.

Not only does the inability to earn real money impair incarcerated workers while inside prison, it also damages their chances of success upon release. With little to no savings, it’s impossible to afford the immediate expenses that hit them when released — food, housing, transportation, healthcare, child support and supervision, school, previous legal fines, to name a few. To add onto these challenges, according to Prison Policy Initiative, “people with felony convictions are often ineligible for government benefit programs like welfare and food stamps, and face barriers, to finding stable housing or employment.” Prisoners may leave just a bus ticket and only $50 of gate money, money paid to a prisoner upon release, if they have no other savings.

The meager earnings of an incarcerated worker are detrimental to not only their success upon release, but also their simple survival. Furthermore, most prison jobs are menial tasks and inmates are taught few skills relevant to the job market that could increase their job opportunities. If even hired, it would likely be a minimum wage job due to their lack of experience, and former convicts will be playing catch-up with the increasing costs of their lives. We are failing prisoners’ chance of rehabilitation not only mentally and emotionally, as mentioned in my last post, but also financially.

The general public has a warped impression of prison labor, thinking it is something voluntary and an “enjoyable” way to make the time pass. This is clearly false. Forced backbreaking labor for American prisoners with little to no pay is modern-day slavery, something that should have been abolished long ago.

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Copyright © 2018 Beth. All Rights Reserved.

3 Comments
  1. […] Profiting from Punishment: The Truth Behind Prison Labor by Beth is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. […]

  2. Ronnie 10 months ago

    Beth!! Such a good article, this topic is so crucial to discuss especially in America today. It baffles me that this “loophole” is completely legal in the US. The US prison system as well as private companies profiting from prison labor need to start treating prisoners as humans again in order to find a compromise within this issue. I watched a documentary called 13th that completely showed me how terrifying this problem is. Take a look! : http://www.avaduvernay.com/13th/

  3. Chidiogo 10 months ago

    Hello Beth, Let me say I really love this article. I have never even thought of a topic like this. I learned so much from reading this article. Also I did not know that they were doing such a thing in Texas, making prisoner’s work unpaid. Also you included so many websites. Well done!

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