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Prison Slavery on the Ballot in Five States

This November, five states are considering ballot measures to end the controversial practice of forced prison labor.

Jonathan Good
Leans Left
Stephen Webber
Leans Right

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Ballots to End Slavery. In the upcoming elections, voters in Alabama, Louisiana, Oregon, Tennessee, and Vermont will vote on whether or not to permit prison labor [slavery or forced labor] for convicted criminals. Twenty states in the U.S. still permit the controversial act as a punishment in prisons, with some paying prisoners less than a dollar per hour. Since 2018, Colorado, Nebraska, and Utah have delegalized prison labor by removing language from their state constitutions — a measure that failed to pass in California earlier this year. If these measures pass, they will effectively abolish prison labor and lead to reforms of inmate pay systems.

Students of History

Why is Prison Labor Legal? When the Civil War ended, Congress ratified the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments — the Reconstruction Amendments — to change the United States’ laws regarding African Americans. The first of those three — the 13th Amendment — formally prohibited slavery and involuntary servitude. However, it purposefully exempted those people convicted of crimes. This provision allows for forced labor in prisons — which some activists label modern-day slavery. This work often goes unpaid or underpaid — far below federal or state minimum wages. Essentially, inmates lose their right to refuse work once a court determines their guilt.

What do Prisoners do? There are three types of prison labor: in-house, work release, and prison industries. Qualified inmates can help tutor in education programs, clean, or help operate communal facilities like gardens as in-house labor. Work release is when incarcerated individuals are out on loan to places like the Department of Transportation to clean roadsides. Finally, prison industries are for-profit ventures often associated with private prisons where prisoners are employed, from staffing call centers to building furniture. 

Arguments For

Cheap Labor. Proponents of prison labor say people who have seriously violated the law to the point where they have been incarcerated for long periods owe a debt to society. Some may argue that that debt is paid through their time spent in prison. However, others believe that time can be spent more constructively. Allowing companies to employ prison labor for cheap costs benefits society and helps criminals repay their debt to regain their rights.

Talk Poverty

Gives Prisoners Purpose. Advocates of prison labor also claim it can often be a liberating experience when a prisoner is released from their cell to work on a task. Hemming a jacket or cooking in the prison kitchen can give inmates a purpose and gratification during the day. Without prison work programs, prisoners might join gangs and engage in negative social behavior. Without a purpose, many inmates become violent and cause problems throughout the system. Some may view prison work as slavery, but in reality, the work gives prisoners freedoms they might not otherwise be allowed to enjoy.

Rehabilitation. Defenders of prison labor also say that allowing prisoners to work gives them some experience socializing and consistently performing a job that might transfer to the real world. Prison rehabilitative work reduces antisocial behavior, strengthens cooperative relationships, and can prevent substance abuse. Learning a work-related skill can also help prisoners land a job and reduce recidivism (getting arrested again).

Arguments Against

Violation. Opponents of the existing prison labor system argue that it is an unacceptable human rights violation. These individuals say that the existing prison labor scheme is equivalent to slavery, as workers have no choice in whether they work or what they do and receive little to no compensation for their efforts. They claim the existing system perpetuates a long-lasting cycle of exploiting Black Americans for profit without regard for their well-being.

Who Profits? Activists say that incarcerated workers are under the sole control of their employers. Additionally, they claim these prisoners have none of the traditional workplace protections against exploitation or abuse. According to the Prison Policy Initiative, imprisoned workers receive far below minimum wage when paid, averaging less than a dollar per hour. Even then, the government takes a significant portion of their pay for various fees, such as court costs or restitution. Opponents argue that prisons exploit inmates for financial advantage, disproportionately reaping the profits of their labor while forcing them to work inhumane conditions.

Brennan Center

Incentivizing Incarceration. Some scholars claim the 13th Amendment’s exception encouraged the criminalization of Black people during the Jim Crow Era, as states used discriminatory laws to imprison them. Under these restrictions — known as the “Black Codes” — states would arrest these individuals and then allow private companies to pay for their labor, a system called “convict leasing.” Convict leasing was vicious, effectively allowing plantations to re-enslave African Americans. Many critics say this legacy still plays a role in the modern prison system, which imprisons Black people at five times the rate of white people. Today, many opponents also say allowing forced prison labor incentivizes companies using incarcerated workers to lobby legislators for stricter criminal penalties, as higher incarceration rates create cheaper labor.

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  1. Why do you think the 13th Amendment included the clause allowing for slavery or involuntary servitude for convicted criminals?
  2. Should there be for-profit prisons? Why or why not? 
  3. Does prison labor give inmates a purpose or a freeing experience, as its defenders claim? Explain your view.
  4. Does allowing forced prison labor incentivize more punitive laws? Why or why not? 
  5. Should states abolish the practice of forced prison labor? Explain your view.

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