It is a convenient truth to believe that when the United States Civil War ended and the 13th Amendment was passed, slavery was abolished and this nation took an important step toward racial equality. I would also hope that most Americans today would consider slavery a morally evil act. This nation and many of its corporations go very far to ensure its people and consumers know that they do not participate in or involve themselves with any foreign industries or companies that profit off of slaves. It is largely consigned as a practice left in a dark past or backward lands far from here. Yet, how much do these assumptions reflect our current relationship with the practice of slavery? According to new investigations by the Associated Press, shockingly little. Slavery is alive and well in this country, and it touches the lives of almost every single American through the products we purchase and the businesses we frequent.
This is because of an often forgotten part of the 13th Amendment: the small exception it makes for banning slavery “except as a punishment for crime.” I remember when I first read this back in my AP U.S. History class I passed it over assuming it was a minor, antiquated detail; after all, we all consider slavery to be bad, and I’d never heard of anyone getting “sentenced to slavery.” This belief could not have been more wrong. This nation’s prison system is home to almost 800,000 “incarcerated workers” who often are unpaid (or paid pennies an hour), have no legal protections and are left with no choice but to work lest they face extreme and cruel punishment. This can include solitary confinement, loss of visitation, denial of opportunities to reduce sentences and even physical punishment. The value they provide to outside industries, or more simply put, the value of the products they make which are bought either indirectly or directly by Americans, is said to be around $2 billion per year. The list of companies that have had their products tied to these practices is incredible — Coca-Cola, Walmart, McDonalds, Whole Foods, Dominos, Target and Pepsi, to name a few. At this point, this practice has ties so deep across the entire economy that it is nearly impossible for the average consumer to avoid spending their money on products connected to slavery.
The value of this labor for the states is also a factor that cannot be understated. It is reported that prisoners produce $9 billion worth of maintenance and upkeep for their prisons such as in cleaning, cooking, repair services and laundry services. The products prisoners produce and the value of leasing them to companies provide significant revenue for the state governments which essentially own them. In terms of both private and public endeavors, slave labor is undoubtedly used to stave off costs for inefficient organizations that require exploitation to be able to function.
Often these prisoners work in agriculture, in the same blood-stained plantations that were tended to by slaves before the Civil War. The stories of cruelty towards these people mirror those of old plantation life. As one former prisoner described, “If we refused to work we had to stand on top of a wooden box in the sun. It was called ‘doin’ the scarecrow’ and some guys passed out from the heat.” Others describe simpler tactics to ensure productivity, wherein guards would come out to protesting workers and beat them with billy clubs to no end. The point of this comparison in horror stories is to show that arguments in defense of this practice are disingenuous. This labor is not “therapeutic” or beneficial, nor can it be realistically stated that this provides prisoners with valuable skill sets to prepare them for life afterward. This is exploitation for the profit of people much more powerful than they are, on an entirely systemic level.
When hearing this story and all the horrible details of the life lived by these prisoners, it’s important to remember that these are people too. It’s too easy to imagine this treatment as being deserved because all these people are rapists or murderers who can be separated from the rest of humanity. No, these are human beings, they are not a stereotype. They do not deserve this.
Race is also, undoubtedly, one of the most important factors in this problem as well. These exploited prisoners are overwhelmingly Black, but I’m sure this is hardly a surprise, nor is it an accident. The history of policing in this country, of Black codes, of Jim Crow laws, of redlining all demonstrate that this new form of slavery is part of a long tradition in America of disenfranchising Black Americans to exploit them. Racial discrimination is baked into economic and legal systems to prevent the social mobility of marginalized groups. Poverty is criminalized through over-policing and aggressive prosecution. Criminals are exploited for capital gain by state and corporate actors. This chain which stretches back through history shows that we never left an organized system of slavery, but rather morphed it into modern terms to continue to serve the economic benefit for this nation.