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21st Century Slavery

How Prison Labor is the New American Slavery

October 19


London , United Kingdom of Great Britain & Northern Ireland - 19 Oct 2017 - Ghassan Matar

We think of slavery as a practice of the past, an image from Roman colonies or 18th-century American plantations, or the Arab slave trade where 17 million people were sold into slavery, mostly as concubines; however the practice of enslaving human beings as property still exists. There are 29.8 million people living as slaves right now.

This is not some softened, by-modern-standards definition of slavery. These millions of people are living as forced labourers, forced prostitutes, child soldiers, child brides in forced marriages and, in all ways that matter, as pieces of property, chattel in the servitude of absolute ownership.

The country where you are most likely to be enslaved is Mauritania. However, slavery is not limited to under-developed or developing countries. The country that is most marked by slavery is India with an estimated 14 million people currently living as slaves. One of the world's most vulnerable populations for enslavement is Haitian children. Haiti has the world's second-highest rate of slavery -- 2.1 percent, or about one in every 48 people, many of them underage.

There are also millions of people in Europe who are technically slaves, however this article deals with modern legal slavery in the United States.

American slavery was technically abolished in 1865, but a loophole in the 13th Amendment has allowed it to continue “as a punishment for crimes” well into the 21st century. Not surprisingly, corporations have lobbied for a broader and broader definition of “crime” in the last 150 years. As a result, there are more (mostly dark-skinned) people performing mandatory, essentially unpaid, hard labour in America today than there were in 1830.

You don't have to go far to see slavery in America. In Washington, D.C., you can sometimes spot them on certain streets, late at night. Not all sex workers or "prostitutes" are slaves, of course; plenty have chosen the work voluntarily and can leave it freely. But many are coerced into participating at a young age and gradually shifted into a life that very much resembles slavery.

A less visible but still prevalent form of slavery in America involves illegal migrant labourers who are lured with the promise of work and then manipulated into forced servitude, living without wages or freedom of movement, under constant threat of being turned over to the police should they let up in their work. This has become more acute since President Trump began clamping down on illegal immigrants. Another form of slavery practiced in the United States is Prison Labour and this is the focus of this piece.

With 5 percent of the world’s population and 25 percent of the world’s prison population, the United States has the largest incarcerated population in the world. No other society in history has imprisoned more of its own citizens. There are half a million more prisoners in the U.S. than in China, which has five times our population.

Approximately 1 in 100 adults in America were incarcerated in 2016.  Out of an adult population of 245 million that year, there were 2.4 million people in prison, jail or some form of detention centre. That doesn’t include the tens of thousands of detained undocumented immigrants facing deportation, prisoners awaiting sentencing, or juveniles caught up in the school-to-prison pipeline. 

Perhaps it’s reassuring to some that the US still holds the number one title in at least one arena, but needless to say the hyper-incarceration plaguing America has had a damaging effect on society at large.

As many as 24,000 prisoners in facilities across the country engaged in a work stoppage this fall to protest the low, or even non-existent, wages that incarcerated people are paid for their work. These labourers have been legally stripped of their political, economic and social rights and ultimately relegated to second-class citizens. They are banned from unionizing, violently silenced from speaking out and forced to work for little to no wages.

This marginalization renders them practically invisible, as they are kept hidden from society with no available recourse to improve their circumstances or change their plight. Certainly, prison labour is a form of slavery. The Prison Policy Initiative found that the average inmate’s wage is 93 cents an hour — and can go as low as 16 cents — when they’re employed by private companies that use prison labour.

The costs of this incarceration industry are far from evenly distributed, with the impact of excessive incarceration falling predominantly on African-American communities. Although black people make up just 13 percent of the overall population, they account for 40 percent of US prisoners.

According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS), black males are incarcerated at a rate "more than 6.5 times that of white males and 2.5 that of Hispanic males and "black females are incarcerated at approximately three times the rate of white females and twice that of Hispanic females."

The vast majority – 86 percent – of prisoners have been locked up for non-violent, victimless crimes, many of them drug-related.

Clearly, the US prison system is riddled with racism and classism, but it gets worse. As it turns out, private companies have a cheap, easy labour market, and it isn’t in China, Indonesia, Haiti, or Mexico. It’s right here in the land of the free and home of the brave, where large corporations increasingly employ prisoners as a source of cheap and sometimes free labour.

In the eyes of the corporation, inmate labour is a brilliant strategy in the eternal quest to maximize profit. By dipping into the prison labour pool, companies have their pick of workers who are not only cheap but easily controlled. Companies are free to avoid providing benefits like health insurance or sick days, while simultaneously paying little to no wages. They don’t need to worry about unions or demands for vacation time or raises. Inmates work full-time and are never late or absent because of family problems. 

Today’s corporations can lease factories in prisons, as well as lease prisoners out to their factories. In many cases, private corporations are running prisons-for-profit, further incentivizing their stake in locking people up. The government is profiting as well, by running prison factories that operate as "multibillion-dollar industries in every state, and throughout the federal prison system," where prisoners are contracted out to major corporations by the state.

Prior to the 1970s, private corporations were prohibited from using prison labour as a result of the chain gang and convict leasing scandals. But in 1979, the US Department of Justice admits that congress began a process of deregulation to "restore private sector involvement in prison industries to its former status, provided certain conditions of the labour market were met.” Over the last 30 years, at least 37 states have enacted laws permitting the use of convict labour by private enterprise, with an average pay of $0.93 to $4.73 per day. 

Federal prisoners receive more generous wages that range from $0.23 to $1.25 per hour, and are employed by Unicor, a wholly owned government corporation established by Congress in 1934. Its principal customer is the Department of Defence, from which Unicor derives approximately 53 percent of its sales. Some  21,836 inmates work in Unicor programs. Subsequently, the nation's prison industry – prison labour programs producing goods or services sold to other government agencies or to the private sector -- now employs more people than any Fortune 500 company (besides General Motors), and generates about $2.4 billion in revenue annually.

 “Unicor, says that in addition to soldiers' uniforms, bedding, shoes, helmets, and flak vests, inmates have 'produced missile cables (including those used on the Patriot missiles during the Gulf War)' and 'wiring harnesses for jets and tanks.' In 1997, according to Prison Legal News, Boeing subcontractor MicroJet had prisoners cutting airplane components, paying $7 an hour for work that paid union wages of $30 on the outside.”

Oil companies have been known to exploit prison labour as well. Following the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon rig that killed 11 workers and irreparably damaged the Gulf of Mexico for generations to come, BP elected to hire Louisiana prison inmates to clean up its mess. Louisiana has the highest incarceration rate of any state in the nation, 70 percent of which are African-American men. Coastal residents desperate for work, whose livelihoods had been destroyed by BP’s negligence, were outraged at BP’s use of free prison labour.

Private companies have long understood that prison labour can be as profitable as sweatshop workers in third-world countries with the added benefit of staying closer to home. Take Escod Industries, which in in the 1990s abandoned plans to open operations in Mexico and instead "moved to South Carolina, because the wages of American prisoners undercut those of de-unionized Mexican sweatshop workers,".

The move was fuelled by the state, which gave a $250,000 "equipment subsidy" to Escod along with industrial space at below-market rent. Other examples include Ohio's Honda supplier, which "pays its prison workers $2 an hour for the same work for which the UAW has fought for decades to be paid $20 to $30 an hour. Konica, which has hired prisoners to repair its copiers for less than 50 cents an hour. And in Oregon, where private companies can “lease” prisoners at a bargain price of $3 a day."

Even politicians have been known to tap into prison labour for their own personal use. In 1994, a contractor for GOP congressional candidate Jack Metcalf hired Washington state prisoners to call and remind voters he was pro-death penalty.

 After winning his campaign, he claimed to have no knowledge of the scandal. Perhaps this is why Senator John Ensign (R-NV) introduced a bill earlier this year to "require all low-security prisoners to work 50 hours a week." After all, The New York Times reminds us that "creating a national prison labour force has been a goal of his since he went to Congress in 1995."

In an unsettling turn of events lawmakers have begun ditching public employees in favour of free prison labour. The New York Times recently reported that states are "enlisting prison labour to close budget gaps" to offset cuts in "federal financing and dwindling tax revenue." At a time of record unemployment, inmates are being hired to "paint vehicles, clean courthouses, sweep campsites and perform many other services done before the recession by private contractors or government employees." In Wisconsin, prisoners are now taking up jobs that were once held by unionized workers, as a result of Governor Scott Walker’s contentious anti-union law.

“Well over 600,000, and probably close to a million, inmates are working full-time in jails and prisons throughout the United States. Perhaps some of them built your desk chair: office furniture, especially in state universities and the federal government, is a major prison labour product. Inmates also take hotel reservations at corporate call centres, make body armour for the U.S. military, and manufacture prison chic fashion accessories, in addition to the iconic task of stamping license plates.”

Some of the largest and most powerful corporations have a stake in the expansion of the prison labour market, including but not limited to IBM, Boeing, Motorola, Microsoft, AT&T, Wireless, Texas Instrument, Dell, Compaq, Honeywell, Hewlett-Packard, Nortel, Lucent Technologies, 3Com, Intel, Northern Telecom, TWA, Nordstrom's, Revlon, Macy's, Pierre Cardin, Target Stores, and many more. Between 1980 and 1994 alone, profits went up from $392 million to $1.31 billion. Since the prison labour force has likely grown since then, it is safe to assume that the profits accrued from the use of prison labour have reached even higher levels.  

While prison labour helps produce goods and services for almost every big business in America, here are a few examples from an article that highlights the epidemic:

Whole Foods – You ever wonder how Whole Foods can afford to keep their prices so low (sarcasm)? Whole Foods’ coffee, chocolate and bananas might be “fair trade,” but the corporation has been offsetting the “high wages” paid to third-world producers with not-so-fair-wages here in America.

The corporation, famous for it’s animal welfare rating system, apparently was not as concerned about the welfare of the human “animals” working for them in Colorado prisons until April of this year.

You know that $12-a-pound tilapia you thought you were buying from “sustainable, American family farms?” It was raised by prisoners in Colorado, who were paid as little as 74 cents a day. And that fancy goat cheese? The goats were raised and milked by prisoners too.

McDonald’s – The world’s most successful fast food franchise purchases a plethora of goods manufactured in prisons, including plastic cutlery, containers, and uniforms. The inmates who sew McDonald’s uniforms make even less money by the hour than the people who wear them.

Wal-Mart – Although their company policy clearly states that “forced or prison labour will not be tolerated by Wal-Mart,” basically every item in their store has been supplied by third-party prison labour factories. Wal-Mart purchases its produce from prison farms, where labourers are often subjected to long hours in the blazing heat without adequate food or water.

Victoria’s Secret – Female inmates in South Carolina sew undergarments and casual-wear for the pricey lingerie company. In the late 1990’s, two prisoners were placed in solitary confinement for telling journalists that they were hired to replace “Made in Honduras” garment tags with “Made in USA” tags.

AT&T – In 1993, the massive phone company laid off thousands of telephone operators—all union members—in order to increase their profits. Even though AT&T’s company policy regarding prison labour reads eerily like Wal-Mart’s, they have consistently used inmates to work in their call centres since ’93, barely paying them $2 a day.

BP (British Petroleum) – When BP spilled 4.2 million barrels of oil into the Gulf coast, the company sent a workforce of almost exclusively African-American inmates to clean up the toxic spill while community members, many of whom were out-of-work fisherman, struggled to make ends meet. BP’s decision to use prisoners instead of hiring displaced workers outraged the Gulf community, but the oil company did nothing to reconcile the situation.

While not all prisoners are “forced” to work, most “opt” to because life would be even more miserable if they didn’t, as they have to purchase pretty much everything above the barest necessities (and sometimes those too) with their hard-earned pennies. Some of them have legal fines to pay off and families to support on the outside. Often they come out more indebted than when they went in.

In places like Texas, prison work is mandatory and unpaid – the literal definition of slave labour.

According the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, prisoners start their day with a 3:30 a.m. wake-up call and are served breakfast at 4:30 a.m. All prisoners who are physically able are required to report to their work assignments by 6 a.m.

“Offenders are not paid for their work, but they can earn privileges as a result of good work habits,” the website says.

Most prisoners work in prison support jobs, like cooking, cleaning, laundry, and maintenance, but about 2,500 of them 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 meat packaging 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.” Prisoners who refuse to work – again, unpaid – are placed in solitary confinement. 

Similar “prison farms” exist 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. While the agricultural goods produced on prison farms is generally used to feed prisoners and other wards of the state (orphanages and asylums) they are also sold for profit.

In addition to being forced to labour directly for the profit of the government, inmates may be “farmed out” to private enterprises, through the practice of convict leasing, to work on private agricultural lands or related industries (fishing, lumbering, etc.). The party purchasing their labour from the government generally does so at a steep discount from the cost of free labour.

Those who argue in favour of prison labour claim it is a useful tool for rehabilitation and preparation for post-jail employment. But this has only been shown to be true in cases where prisoners are exposed to meaningful employment, where they learn new skills, not the labour-intensive, menial and often dangerous work they are being tasked with. While little if any evidence exists to suggests that the current prison labour system decreases recidivism or leads to better employment prospects outside of prison, there are a number of solutions that have been proven to be useful. 

The exploitation of any workforce is detrimental to all workers. Cheap and free labour pushes down wages for everyone. Just as American workers cannot compete with sweatshop labour, the same goes for prison labour. Many jobs that come into prison are taken from free citizens. The American labour movement must demand that prison labour be allowed the right to unionize, the right to a fair and living wage, and the right to a safe and healthy work environment. That is what prisoners are demanding, but they can only do so much from inside a prison cell.  

The irony is that in 2016, the United States steeped up efforts to battle forced labor in prisons; but not in the US; in this case it was against China. In fact, the U.S. closed a decades-old loophole in March 2016. A trade law from 1930 had previously allowed goods "made with convict labor, forced labor or indentured labor" to be imported if they were in short supply. Two Chinese companies whose products were blocked -- Tangshan SunFar Silicon Company and Tangshan Sanyou Group -- could not be reached for comment on the matter. Multiple calls to numbers listed on the companies' websites went unanswered. In some cases, the lines were disconnected.

As unemployment on the outside increases leading to ever greater migration, so too will crime and incarceration rates, and our 21st-century version of corporate slavery will continue to expand and thrive unless something is done about it. It won't be long before unemployed people will simply commit a crime to land a job; as many are doing now to get free healthcare.


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  1. End Prisons

    Race comes in because it’s an indisputable fact that nonwhite folks are arrested at much higher rates for drugs (mostly), when all races use drugs about the same amount. But you do have a point – prison labor includes all races, which is despicable. It sure doesn’t seem like “responsibility” is really relevant, because I don’t see how it’s very responsible to remove someone from their community (overwhelmingly for nonviolent crimes), and then force their families to fend for themselves.

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  2. Karen

    Why does color enter the picture? I have people in jail that are white,yet work in prison, for pennies, just so they have something to look forward to each day. And if you are in prison, why should you get a free ride. Work your off, you might learn how to be responsible for your self and family.

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    • 20 Oct 2017 JoJo

      If you think it’s justified to pay people pennies so they have “something to look forward to” I bet a few hundred years ago you would have been A-OK with slavery, because they have somewhere to sleep “to look forward to”. Forcing people to work for a tiny amount of money (which doesn’t ever leave the prison) is slavery. Full Stop. When it’s profitable to lock up folks to do work for you, there’s incentive to keep that going. It’s not a coincidence that the US has 5% of the world’s population, but 25% of the prison population – people are getting rich off of it.

  3. Susan

    supply and demand.. which comes first? need labor? get inmates see? that means if you blink wrong twice you may be a criminal.then again we may be overlooking the care for the prisoner far exceeds what his labor earns.. the clothes food electric and guards etc.. don’t they say EACH prisoner costs us in taxes 100,000? some crazy amount? humans are such a strange lifeform.

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  4. Beaman

    Force is used a lot in this article and seems to generalize the situation. A good friend of mine went to jail, was offered work to shorten his sentence. Of course he chose to work as it would not only shorten his sentence but make the time go by faster. Where is the force in his situation? Also if “modern slavery” is people working who committed a crime, then their bondage is self brought on and your use of the word slavery an exaggeration.

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