In U.S. Prisons, a New Battle Over an Old Institution: Forced Labor

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More than half of U.S. states observed a public holiday this past Wednesday for Juneteenth, a celebration dedicated to the end of legal slavery in the United States after the Civil War.

One of those states was Alabama — and according to a recent lawsuit, the state did so while also perpetuating a kind of modern-day slavery, because it compels incarcerated people to work under the threat of punishment.

It’s unclear how the suit will fare in court, but it undoubtedly has a better chance today than it would have just two years ago. From 1901 to 2022, the Alabama Constitution — like the U.S. Constitution’s 13th Amendment — explicitly allowed slavery as punishment for a crime. Two years ago, Alabama was among four states that passed constitutional amendments to close this loophole prohibiting slavery and involuntary servitude under any circumstances.

The Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR), which brought the suit on behalf of six people currently incarcerated in Alabama — all of whom are Black — says that little has changed in the state since the amendment passed. The suit claims that people behind bars who refuse work assignments, or who are fired from work-release jobs, are routinely punished or threatened: everything from loss of telephone and visitation access to solitary confinement and transfer to more violent facilities. This is the case even when the reasons for missing work are medical or concerns over workplace safety, according to the CCR’s complaint.

The state responded in a court filing, writing that while some privileges may be revoked for failing to work, “No prisoner’s basic rights are threatened for refusing to perform these communal tasks.” It also noted that in Colorado, which also passed a constitutional ban on slavery in 2018, courts rejected a similar suit arguing that prison labor discipline was tantamount to involuntary servitude. This week, Colorado state Senator James Coleman implored the state corrections department to change its policy anyway, citing Juneteenth, and calling the state’s prison labor discipline policy “a clear violation of the spirit and the letter of our constitution, and the will of Colorado voters.”

Robert Hockley can relate to what the Alabama plaintiffs describe, drawing on his own incarceration in Texas in 1996. Last week, he told The Austin Chronicle that when he was locked up at age 17, he was assigned to harvest cotton on a prison farm that was once home to a plantation. Offended at the prospect of picking cotton — a primary cash crop of American slavery — on fields once tilled by enslaved Black Americans, he initially refused. He said that in retaliation he was locked in a metal trailer, shackled to other men in the scorching Texas sun for a punishment by heat.

“That was my introduction into burning hell,” Hockley told the Chronicle.

Cotton harvesting on Texas prison farms is done with the aid of more farm machinery nowadays, with less need for compelling manual labor, but it has not been abandoned. Writing from a Texas prison this month for Prism Reports, Xandan Gulley describes how “the hoe squad slaves under the sun” for no pay “while the bosses wearing cowboy hats sit on their horses in the shade drinking cold beverages, chewing tobacco with shotguns in their arms and pistols on their hips.”

Despite paying no wages, the cotton harvest at Texas prisons is an economic loser, running a deficit of about $5 million in 2021 according to a state audit.

Bianca Tylek, founder of the criminal justice advocacy group Worth Rises, explained the losses to The Marshall Project like this in 2021: “The point is to remind people that the state owns you,” Tylek said. “They want to make it parallel to slavery, and they are willing to do it at their own cost.”

Prison industry programs typically justify the continued operation of unprofitable ventures on the grounds that incarcerated people are learning job skills.

Cotton cultivation, along with most prison agriculture, is also in the red in Louisiana, 2019 state audit documents show. It’s unsafe too, according to a suit filed this week by a group of men at the Louisiana State Penitentiary — better known as Angola, a nod to the plantation that preceded the prison. The suit alleges that the prison does not take appropriate precautions to ensure the safety of people assigned to prison farm work in the summer heat, like proper hydration, frequent breaks and sunscreen. The suit requests an injunction that would halt farm operations anytime the heat index climbs over 88 degrees Fahrenheit.

Louisiana voters rejected a constitutional amendment to ban slavery in 2022 — the same year Alabama passed its version — but did so after the bill’s sponsor came out against it, calling the language confusing. Since 2022, several states have embarked on their own efforts, including New York and California. The new California push follows a failed, more ambitious effort that would have required incarcerated people to be paid the prevailing minimum wage, something that analysts said would cost the cash-strapped state $1.5 billion a year.

The new effort is part of a suite of bills packaged as reparations for the descendants of enslaved Americans.


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