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Prison Labor: The Modern Slavery

Prison workers are underpaid, undervalued, and underappreciated

Jacob Lonon, Scarlet Staff

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When Congress ratified the 13th Amendment to the Constitution outlawing slavery, it left an important caveat, a single circumstance under which slavery could still be legal in the United 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.”

Slavery is still legal as it applies to convicted prisoners. According to Douglas A. Blackmon’s book Slavery by Another Name, this exception was used in the form of “convict leasing,” to convict African-Americans under selective enforcement of laws and force them to work in what was effectively a return to slavery. The practice was officially ended nationwide by President Franklin Roosevelt in 1942.

Though this practice has been officially ended for decades, many argue that it effectively continues to allow exploitative labor practices and abuses. This brings us to the 2018 prison strikes that have been taking place across the country for the past few weeks, having only ended on September 9, the anniversary of the Attica Prison Uprising of 1971, in which prisoners rioted and demanded an improved standard of living than they saw then.

Forty-five years later, it seems like little has changed. As mentioned in a recent Vox article,  California recently volunteered to combat the state’s record wildfires and were paid $1 an hour plus $2 per day for their efforts, even though they risked their lives in the process. The average prison worker in a state facility is paid just 20 cents an hour, less than 3% of the federal minimum wage, and courts have interpreted the 13th Amendment to state that prison workers are not legally defined as employees, meaning that no workers’ rights laws apply to them. They have no right to form or join a workers’ union, collect workers’ compensation or disability pay, or even leave a job that they do not want to work.

In addition to these circumstances, prisoners must deal with poor living conditions including overcrowding, poor health care, sexual abuse, and other cruel and unusual punishment, itself outlawed under the 8th Amendment to the Constitution. In 2014, a mentally-ill ex-Marine named Jerome Murdough who was unable to pay the $2,500 bail charge was sent to prison on Rikers Island and placed in solitary confinement. Although it was February at the time he was confined, the cells were reported to be unusually hot, and Murdough was found dead in his cell. An autopsy released that year reported that he had died from hyperthermia, or intense heat, as reported by the LA times.

This is just one case in a litany of reported abuses that prisoners have suffered and are going on strike to raise awareness of. They have chosen to emphasize several major issues, namely the aforementioned labor and living conditions as well as the fact that many felons lose the right to vote even after they have served their time as dictated and unfair disparity for sentencing based on race. The protests have taken the form of work strikes, peaceful sit-ins, boycotts, and hunger strikes, and protests have been formally organized in prisons across the country.

Unfortunately, however, there are many reasons to doubt whether this course of action will be effective in bringing about any change in the prisoners’ condition. According to a recent YouGov survey of over 7,500 respondents, only 37% thought that prisoners should earn more money than they do now. 22% said that they should earn no money. A recent poll sponsored by the American Civil Liberties Union offers more encouraging statistics, reporting that 91% of respondents thought the criminal justice system has problems that need fixing.

It seems like people are less likely to support reforms that would benefit those who are already incarcerated. This means that politicians are less likely to back any measures that would improve life for prisoners, considering that they ignore the broad support that other, much more palatable measures have garnered in the past few years. One doubts whether any politicians will be willing to be viewed as “siding with murderers and thugs” (as their opponents will contend), even if it can be considered the right thing to do.

It seems that, even in the face of massive prison strikes and clear evidence of mistreatment of prisoners, little will be done to fix the problem, at least as the situation currently stands. One can hope for criminal justice reform that will do its best to “fix” the system going forward, but at the same time we should remember those it has already left behind.


[1] US Const. amend. XIII, sec. 1.

[2] Douglas A. Blackmon. Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II, New York: Anchor Books, Random House Publishing, 2008.





[7] US Const. amend. XIII, sec. 1.

[8] Douglas A. Blackmon. Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II, New York: Anchor Books, Random House Publishing, 2008.





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Prison Labor: The Modern Slavery