Prison Labor in the U.S.

There has been a lot of talk around ethical labor and ethical brands lately. Although this conversation is much needed, it is heartbreaking that this conversation is just now picking up speed. In the light of the racially driven conversations that have been occurring all over the world, many have asked the same question: is slavery really over? Unfortunately, despite what we were taught in elementary school, slavery is still alive and well. Slavery occurs all over the world on a daily basis. In some instances, this manifests through sex slavery or slave labor, both illegal in the U.S., but still occur daily. However, there is another form of slavery that people seem to be less aware of – and it’s legal in the United States. This abomination is called prison labor, and yes, you may be contributing to it.

So, what is prison labor? Prison labor is a legal way to profit off of people in prison. When in prison, incarcerated individuals may be “allowed” to work for $1 or less an hour to do excessive hard labor. There are multiple issues with this. Some may argue that this is an opportunity for the people in prison, but this is not the case. Prison labor conditions are often unsafe, unhealthy, and below legal standards. This is because the people involved in prison labor are not protected by federal laws. The U.S. has many federal laws, like the Fair Labor Standards Act, in place within working environments to keep workers safe and to keep work environments up to code. These laws do not apply within the world of prison labor, which means workers are working in unsafe conditions for measly wages. Another issue surrounding prison labor is the pay. Although many, including me, would argue that the pay is unfair, it also is unrealistic. When in prison, many incarcerated persons still have to pay fees outside of prison, like child support, court/lawyer fees, and other debts. The low pay rate of prison labor not only rarely covers these costs but leaves these individuals with little to nothing to purchase goods while in prison. This often leaves them with intense debt when, or if, they get out of prison.

Now many would argue that incarcerated individuals deserve these low wages and unsafe conditions – “they’re criminals!” Firstly, humans are humans. These individuals may have committed a crime, but that does not mean they deserve to be treated like slaves. In addition, realistically, somewhere between 2% and 10% of incarcerated individuals are innocent. This means an estimated 46,000 to 230,0000 of accused individuals did not commit the crime they were convicted of. Not to mention that many of these crimes have exaggerated sentences. In addition, 46% of incarcerated individuals are in prison for drug offenses, many of which were nonviolent. Out of this 46%, in 2019, 8.61% were marijuana related – which is now legal in 33 states and often praised for its medical and mental health benefits. 4.7% of incarcerated individuals are in prison for immigration, and with the current state of the executive branch, this number will most likely see an increase within the 2016-2020 statistics.

Now how is this legal? Prison labor is legal thanks to the 13th amendment. The 13th amendment “abolished slavery,” except for some slavery. The amendment directly states that, “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” As “American Slavery, Reinvented” by Whitney Benns (2015), describes, this essentially means that “Incarcerated persons have no constitutional rights in this arena; they can be forced to work as punishment for their crimes.” Even scarier, prison labor itself is historically rooted in slavery. Prison labor arose after the Civil War, when accused individuals of that time were sent to prison labor camps to work off their crimes. These camps were eerily similar to concentration style camps and often were literal renovated/repurposed slave plantations. And no surprise here, the majority of the “workers” were Black. So, the U.S. basically waved a “slave free” flag whilst rebranding slavery as “prison labor,” and placing Black individuals right back in the plantations they were “freed” from.

Lastly, the prison system is racially skewed. As we have seen in the news, the legal system is not built to protect or support minorities. This is also true of the prison system. According to the NAACP, despite Black and Hispanic individuals making up 32% of the US population, they currently represent 56% of the US incarcerated population. Here are some quick statistics (quoted from: https://www.naacp.org/criminal-justice-fact-sheet/):

• In 2014, [Black Individuals] constituted 2.3 million, or 34%, of the total 6.8 million correctional population.
• [Black Individuals] are incarcerated at more than 5 times the rate of whites.
• The imprisonment rate for [Black] women is 2x that of white women.
• Nationwide, [Black] children represent 32% of children who are arrested, 42% of children who are detained, and 52% of children whose cases are judicially waived to criminal court. [Black] children represent 14% of the population.

It is evident that the US holds racial biases against POC, but specifically Black individuals. According to “Attending to Threat: Race-based Patterns of Selective Attention,” by Trawalter, Todd, Baird, & Richerson (2008), “a recent set of audit studies of racial discrimination in low-wage labor markets (e.g., Pager, 2003) revealed that a Black male applicant without a criminal record fares no better at acquiring a job than a similarly skilled White applicant who was recently released from prison!” Non-black individuals associate blackness with danger. This incorrect and incredibly damaging stereotype fuels the prison system and the corruption within police forces and governmental systems. Although prison labor is the surface issue, the root of the issue goes much deeper and is summarized by the term “systemic racism.” The systems of the U.S. are built for white individuals, not for non-black POC, and especially not for Black individuals.

So, how can you help? Firstly, be careful who you purchase goods from. Many large corporations use prison labor to make their goods, including, but not limited to: McDonald’s, Wendy’s, Walmart, Starbucks, Sprint, Verizon, Victoria’s Secret, JCPenney, KMart, American Airlines, Whole Foods, Amazon, Target, and Nintendo. Shopping ethically and ensuring that your money is going to fair-trade companies is one of the best and most realistic ways to help. Check out our last blog post for a list of fair-trade brands to shop from! However, shopping ethically is a privilege, both economically and socioeconomically. So, if you cannot afford to shop entirely fair-trade and ethically, just try to do so when you can! Instead of going on Amazon for that cool piece of furniture, see if you can find a similar piece in a second-hand store! Instead of buying those party decorations from Target, see if you can make them out of things you already have lying around the house. Or instead of doing a huge grocery haul at Whole Foods, see if you can find your groceries at Trader Joe’s, a local co-op, or a farmer’s market!

Another way to help is to spread the word! Many are unaware that prison labor is such a huge human rights issue in the U.S. Educating yourself and others is one of the first steps to take. Lastly, take action. Sign petitions to stop prison labor, call your government officials, and donate to prison-reform organizations if you are financially able to do so. Everyone can make a difference, no matter how small.

Education Resources:

Petition Links:

Prison Reform Organizations:

Trawalter, S., Todd, A. R., Baird, A. A., & Richeson, J. A. (2008). Attending to Threat: Race-based
Patterns of Selective Attention. Journal of experimental social psychology, 44(5), 1322–1327. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jesp.2008.03.006