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Forced Labor in US Prisons: A Form of Modern Slavery?

Prisoners work in a UNICOR (Federal Prison Industries – UNICOR is the trade name) program producing military uniforms. UNICOR logo is visible in the background. Federal Bureau of Prisons, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The 13th Amendment and its Exception

The 13th Amendment to the United States Constitution abolished slavery in 1865, marking a significant turning point in American history. However, it included a notable exception: “except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.” This exception has allowed for the continuation of forced labor within the prison system, a practice that has been likened to a form of modern slavery.

The Extent of Forced Labor in US Prisons

According to a report by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), over 1.2 million people are incarcerated in state and federal prisons in the United States. Two out of three incarcerated people work while in prison, totaling nearly 800,000 workers. These incarcerated workers have limited protections against labor exploitation and abuse.

Incarcerated workers are not protected by minimum wage laws, overtime protection, union rights, or workplace safety guarantees. They earn an average of between 13 and 52 cents per hour nationwide. Up to 80% of wages earned by incarcerated workers are taken by the government for fees and costs associated with imprisonment.

The Economic Impact of Prison Labor

Incarcerated workers produce over $11 billion worth of goods and services for prison maintenance, state-owned businesses, and private companies each year. Prisons spend less than 1% of their budget on paying wages to incarcerated workers but more than two-thirds on paying staff.

Despite the low wages, families spend $2.9 billion annually on commissary accounts and phone calls to incarcerated loved ones. The economic impact of prison labor is significant, but the human cost is even greater.

The Human Cost of Prison Labor

Incarcerated workers often receive no formal job training and work in hazardous conditions without protective gear. Nearly a third of incarcerated people have contracted COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic, and more than 3,000 have died due to overcrowding and inadequate access to healthcare.

Most prison workers want to develop skills that can help them build careers after release, but most programs fail to provide transferable skills. The lack of adequate training and support for incarcerated workers is a significant barrier to their successful reintegration into society upon release.

The Need for Reform

Major reforms are needed to ensure voluntary work, protect workers’ rights, raise wages, invest in training, and abolish the 13th Amendment exclusion clause allowing slavery as punishment. These reforms would not only improve the conditions for incarcerated workers but also contribute to a more just and equitable society.

In conclusion, the practice of forced labor in US prisons is a pressing issue that requires immediate attention and action. By addressing this issue, we can work towards a more equitable justice system that respects the rights and dignity of all individuals.