Prison labour and the 13th Amendment

The 13th Amendment is a curious little beast. Abolishing slavery in the United States was, we can generally agree, a rather good idea, and in 1865, this beaut was duly ratified and entered into full force of law. But it came with some distinctive caveats, and a sharp indicator that no matter what the law says, slavery is still alive and well in the United States. Until the problems of the 13th Amendment are addressed, no one can be said to be truly free in a nation where people in fact perform involuntary servitude on a daily basis, and those within the nation benefit from people treated like human capital on a daily basis.

“Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted,” the amendment declared, “shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” While the outright ban on chattel slavery was critical, the amendment didn’t go nearly far enough, thanks to that one little weasel phrase: ‘Except as a punishment for crime.’ Thanks to those six words, ever since the 1860s, states have been taking advantage of forced labour to perform a variety of tasks from road maintenance to making license plates, and in recent years, they’ve also licensed out that labour, allowing prisons to profit tremendously by ‘leasing’ their prisoners to third parties.

Prisoners don’t have a choice when it comes to whether they work or not, though in some prisons they can exercise some freedom in terms of the work assignments they accept. They’re expected to work as part of the terms of their sentence in a culture with a ‘do the crime, do the time’ attitude that says prisoners can be subjected to anything on the grounds of their convictions. People lose tremendous civil rights when they go to prison and people parse this as acceptable because, well, if they wanted to retain their civil rights, maybe they shouldn’t have committed the crime in the first place.

Setting aside the fact that innocent people go to prison on a routine basis. Setting aside structural inequalities that make it harder for some people to access a competent and comprehensive defense. Setting aside unfair sentencing policies and in some cases mandatory sentencing laws, which tend to disproportionately target some populations more than others. Setting aside the fact that prisoners are already deprived of liberty, and face conditions like being trapped in solitary confinement for the slightest perceived infraction. Setting aside the fact that prisoners have limited access to health care.

Prisoners are punished with limited access to books and other media. They are punished by being disenfranchised. They are punished with terrible food. With limited access to the outdoors. With restrictions on whom they can associate with and when, including their own families. Imprisonment, the government informs the public, is necessary both for protection, and for providing stern lessons to people who break the law and need to be reminded of the consequences for it. Rehabilitative justice is not part of the American mindset.

And part of this ‘justice’ includes the practice of forced labour. Prisons require inmates to work for pennies on the dollar (sometimes several dollars an hour, depending on context and setting). While prisons are expected to provide inmates with basic amenities, many of these earnings go to things outsiders would think as pretty fundamental, like saving soap and other simple toiletries, menstrual supplies, the occasional book or magazine. Prisoners are not exactly sending money home to their families to provide financial support in their absence, nor are they banking up money to use when they get out of prison and need to reestablish themselves in the community. Consequently, systems of intergenerational poverty are created, as people cycle in and out of prison, trapped by institutional structures they can’t fight.

At the same time, the state profits tremendously by having a pool of free or very low cost labour. Maintenance on a huge range of government infrastructure is performed by prisoners, who collect garbage, fight fires, perform road repairs, and much more. Third parties can request prison crews, and for-profit prisons have a very intimate relationship with companies that pay a handsome sum for prison labour — most of that sum, however, remains in the hands of executives, never reaching the pockets of the prisoners who did the work.

The 13th Amendment says that this is completely okay, that forced labour is simply part of the price people pay when they commit crimes. Advocates for prison reform and an end to labour abuses have called foul on this practice repeatedly, with limited response — what we effectively need is another amendment, something that would be extremely challenging in a hostile political climate where it’s barely possible to pass even a basic, noncontroversial law, let alone an amendment that would fundamentally alter a huge component of the prison system.

This is an example of the routine injustice that passes behind prison walls without any social or cultural awareness or engagement. Forced labour is happening to someone else, someone far away, someone who probably deserves it anyway if they’re in prison, right? These attitudes inevitably result in pushback when reformers try to say that no, this is not acceptable, this is not normal, and while it may be in the Constitution, it goes against the stated ideals and practices of this country, and we should do better.

Image: Rally at Chowchilla, Daniel Arauz, Flickr