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How the U.S. Still Enslaves People

According to conventional wisdom, every history textbook in America, and any speech remotely about Abraham Lincoln, America no longer enslaves people. Further, with the passage of the 13th Amendment some seven-score-and-sixteen years ago, we left our history of chattel slavery behind—right?

Well, that’s not quite true. According to the 13th Amendment, “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted [emphasis added], shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” You can enslave people; you simply need to arrest them first. 

Legal slavery in the U.S. is now a multi-billion dollar industry, and it’s happening all around us. That’s right: it is entirely legal to enslave prisoners—and we do it a lot. 

As Erin Hatton, our latest guests, explains in her new book Coerced: Work Under Threat of Punishment, prisoners make up a crucial piece of our workforce, and we don’t have to pay them for the privilege. The 13th Amendment makes it possible to force American prisoners to work for little or no money.  Even worse, private companies use prison labor for minimum wage, but the prisoners never see most of that money. 

Prisoners in the U.S. may work in one of two programs: the Prison Industry Enhancement Certification Program (PIECP) or a job within the prison system where they’re incarcerated.  

PIECP allows prisoners to work real jobs for actual companies.  According to the DOJ, PIECP “gives [prisoners] a chance to develop marketable skills that will increase their potential for rehabilitation and meaningful employment on release.” Corporations pay these prisoners minimum wage for competitive work. Still, the government steps in and levees up to 80% of that pay in “legal financial obligations” like taxes and even room and board for their cell. The result is a full-time workforce, creating products for giants like Microsoft, IBM, Wendy’s, and even Whole Foods, that gets paid between $0.33 and $1.41 an hour.  Shockingly, inmates working PIECP jobs are the lucky ones, comparatively. 

Inmates may also work for the prison that houses them for less than a PIECP job and sometimes for free. This kind of prison labor is widespread, compared with the 37 state prisons currently facilitating PIECP employment. Prisoners are expected to be happy with their incredibly meager wages, or face the consequences, says Hatton. 

“They aren’t protected from discrimination and employment and so on. They don’t have a status of worker,” she told Mila. Instead, they endeavor to maintain their status as a “prisoner in good standing.” 

“Being a prisoner in good standing gives you access to things like phone calls and visits from your family, or being able to buy food that you can actually eat from the commissary, or being able to go to the rec yard every day, or to be able to take a shower,” she said. If you refuse to work, do a bad job, or express displeasure at your station, you can lose these rights, making a bad situation much worse. If being forced to work under threat for almost no money sounds like slavery, it’s because it is. 

The 13th Amendment’s prisoner caveat almost rivals the true slavery that preceded it. In the 19th century, African Americans were rounded up for pretty crimes and forced to work menial labor. Vagrancy laws made it illegal to be unemployed in parts of the South, helping to swell the prison workforce. More recently, the War on Drugs helped land hundreds of thousands of men and women of color behind bars—creating a new generation of prison workers. African Americans make up 37.5% of all U.S. inmates while accounting for just 13% of the population. The enslavement of black bodies is still alive and well in the U.S. The prison system facilitates it and profits from it. 

Mollye Barrows, et al. “McDonald’s/Microsoft/Victoria’s Secret Using Prison Labor To Cut Costs.” The Ring of Fire Network, 30 Aug. 2018, trofire.com/2018/08/29/mcdonalds-microsoft-victoria-secret-using-prison-labor-to-cut-costs/. 

Bozelko, Chandra. “Give Working Prisoners Dignity – and Decent Wages.” National Review, National Review, 11 Jan. 2017, www.nationalreview.com/2017/01/prison-labor-laws-wages/. 

“Coerced: Work Under Threat of Punishment.” Bookshop, bookshop.org/books/coerced-work-under-threat-of-punishment/9780520305410?aid=11259&listref=all-authors-season. 

Curry, Rachel. “Companies That Use Prison Labor.” Market Realist, Market Realist, 11 Nov. 2020, marketrealist.com/p/companies-that-use-prison-labor/. 

Daniel Moritz-Rabson On 8/28/18 at 5:12 PM EDT, et al. “Inmates in Government Prisons Are Paid Pennies to Manufacture Clothing, License Plates and Office Supplies.” Newsweek, 4 Sept. 2018, www.newsweek.com/prison-slavery-who-benefits-cheap-inmate-labor-1093729. 

Initiative, Prison Policy. “How Much Do Incarcerated People Earn in Each State?” Prison Policy Initiative, www.prisonpolicy.org/blog/2017/04/10/wages/. 

“It’s 2020. Why Is the War on Drugs Still Happening?” Future Hindsight, 4 Dec. 2020, www.futurehindsight.com/its-2020-why-is-the-war-on-drugs-still-happening/. 

Pariona, Amber. “U.S. Prison Population By Race.” WorldAtlas, WorldAtlas, 18 July 2019, www.worldatlas.com/articles/incarceration-rates-by-race-ethnicity-and-gender-in-the-u-s.html. 

“Prison Industry Enhancement Certification Program (PIECP): Overview.” Bureau of Justice Assistance, bja.ojp.gov/program/prison-industry-enhancement-certification-program-piecp/overview. 

“Prison Industry Enhancement Certification Program (PIECP): Overview.” Bureau of Justice Assistance, bja.ojp.gov/program/prison-industry-enhancement-certification-program-piecp/overview. 

Rafieyan, Darius, and Cardiff Garcia. “The Uncounted Workforce.” NPR, NPR, 29 June 2020, www.npr.org/2020/06/29/884989263/the-uncounted-workforce. “State-Imposed Forced Labor: History of Prison Labor in the U.S.” End Slavery Now, www.endslaverynow.org/blog/articles/state-imposed-forced-labor-history-of-prison-labor-in-the-us.

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