How American Prison Labor has Transformed into Modern-Day Slavery

When the thirteenth amendment was created, its goal was to abolish slavery and involuntary servitude. However, these did not truly end. They were instead reformed to what we now know as prison labor. In 1865, as a response to the abolition of slavery, our government decided to expand involuntary service as a form of punishment for a crime. States would force prisoners, farmers, and other working citizens to do labor in return for low fees. They would use an inexpensive labor force as a way to fuel the capitalistic needs our country desired. 


Unfortunately, nearly a decade later, these wicked ways are still present within our country and are only becoming more inhumane as time passes. Whitney Benns writes within his article “American Slavery, Reinvented” that America is now home to the highest incarceration rate around the globe, holding over two million people and over 22% of the world’s prisoners within its prisons. Moreover, incarcerated workers can be employed in mining, agriculture, and many kinds of manufacturing, such as making garments for Victoria’s Secret; however, they do not get the same protections and benefits as their non-incarcerated counterparts. For instance, the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) allows companies to bypass minimum wage laws for incarcerated workers with the justification that the relationship between the penitentiary and workers is not mainly economic. Benns also includes that many prisons will force inmates to perform labor while paying them from $0 -$2 an hour, creating a dangerous and unethical workspace for these workers as they lack the constitutional right to be free of forced labor. 

Photo by Blue Ridge Anarchist Black Cross

Many people justify this unethical treatment by thinking, “They’re all criminals, so they probably deserve it.” We need to change the narrative that workers behind bars deserve less than equal treatment because it is simply untrue. There are numerous factors that can increase the probability of someone being incarcerated, such as illiteracy, social class, poverty, mental illness, and drug addiction. More than half of the inmates in America are suffering from some kind of mental illness. They are human beings just like you and me; and we need to recognize that their punishment is their time in jail, not the brutal and heinous treatment many inmates endure across the nation. Treatment such as the labor they are forced to perform, the abuse they endure as they perform these forced acts of servitude, and the lack of profit for their work. It is time to recognize that our country is still one that upholds a system designed to oppress. Once we can acknowledge that, then we can set about fixing it.