Chattel slavery was supposedly terminated in 1865. So why, in 2018, are human beings kept in cages and forced to work for pennies and “rented” and “traded” around the country?
This is the reality of the prison labor force in America. The American prison industry costs around $70 billion per year to sustain, and the vast majority of that cost is passed on to prisoners, their families and the American tax-payer. However, there is an additional billion-dollar industry that is largely overlooked by the public: prison labor for profit. Detention centers negotiate lucrative contracts with industry to exploit prisoners as a labor source for pennies per hour, hardly a living wage. Most of what they earn is quickly gobbled up by the company store model, “commissary” in which the basic necessities of life are sold. A cup of ramen soup can cost 10 hours of hard labor in this model. Meanwhile, corporations reap astronomical profits from both the labor and the contracts providing goods to the incarcerated.
The United States accounts for just under 5% of the world’s population, but houses 25% of the world’s prison population, making it the most over-incarcerated nation in the globe. This is a direct consequence of the capitalist prison lobby spending vast sums of money on campaign contributions and strategies to entice elected officials to adopt “Law-and-Order” platforms, introduce legislation that enhances criminalization, and expanding the industrial carceral complex. The result is termed “mass incarceration”, which is truly a deliberate rerouting of human labor into a legalized, state-controlled machine which profits a small handful of people within the oligarchy.
Prisons are purported to be sites for rehabilitation as most of the prison class will inevitably re-enter society. This conflicts with the prison labor exploitation model as that business requires the addition of bodies to perform the work tasks. As such, to sustain this, we have seen the emergence of profitable prison industries holding state institutions hostage by threatening to close facilities unless the state provides bodies to operate their workforce as was seen recently in Estancia, New Mexico, where a private prison recently demanded 300 bodies for their facility. The state complied with alacrity, and subsequently, we have witnessed an increase in bills criminalizing non-violent behavior and introducing draconian prison sentences, under the guise of protecting public safety. However, the true purpose is much more nefarious; these bills have been generated often in collaboration with the American Legislative Exchange Council which has historically served as a powerful agent between prison industry and congressional representatives.
When these industries utilize prison labor as a consumable resource, this raises both legal and moral questions. Frequently, prison advocates will cry that the labor is voluntary and serves to teach new skills and provide the inmate with the opportunity to earn while they serve their time. However, if that were the case, why not obey federal minimum wage laws? Additionally, these facilities often cut corners to maximize profits. Poorly trained staff, abuse, overcrowding, violence, sexual assault, lack of meaningful healthcare, and terrible conditions are many of the problems that face our burgeoning carceral systems.
What’s worse is that many of the human beings trapped behind these walls do not belong there. A recent study in Time magazine found that almost 40% of people in prisons are non-violent drug offenders with a negligible risk of violence who should be released. Longer prison sentences on this cohort had no statistically significant effect on reducing recidivism, and in some cases actually increased the incidence of criminal recidivism (indicating long-term incarceration was actually breeding crime, not eliminating it). Over 80% of arrests by U.S. law enforcement are for drug crimes and of the folks in jail for drug possession, 47% are held pre-trial, indicating they are locked up because they are too poor to pay for bail.
It is also apparent that the racial component to mass incarceration cannot be denied. Although drug use is roughly equal across racial lines, Black individuals are six times more likely to be jailed for drug crimes compared to white counterparts who commit the exact same crimes. Thus, it is clear that the for-profit prison industry, and specifically prison labor, is exploiting human beings in a racially-driven fashion, thereby exacerbating inequality and devastating these minority communities further.
What can we do to end this cycle of moral dysregulation?
In order to effectively end the commodification of human bodies through chattel slavery, several groups are approaching prison slavery from a labor rights point of view. They seek to disrupt the business of the prison industry through a national prisoners’ strike which will demand improved conditions, living wages, legislative reform, sentencing reform, civil rights restoration, boycotts, work strikes, and more. Their press release is as follows:
PRESS RELEASE: NATIONAL PRISONERS STRIKE
AUGUST 21st -SEPTEMBER 9th, 2018
Men and women incarcerated in prisons across the nation declare a nationwide strike in response to the riot in Lee Correctional Institution, a maximum-security prison in South Carolina. Seven comrades lost their lives during a senseless uprising that could have been avoided had the prison not been so overcrowded from the greed wrought by mass incarceration, and a lack of respect for human life that is embedded in our nation's penal ideology. These men and women are demanding humane living conditions, access to rehabilitation, sentencing reform and the end of modern day slavery.
These are the NATIONAL DEMANDS of the men and women in federal, immigration, and state prisons:
1. Immediate improvements to the conditions of prisons and prison policies that recognize the humanity of imprisoned men and women.
2. An immediate end to prison slavery. All persons imprisoned in any place of detention under United States jurisdiction must be paid the prevailing wage in their state or territory for their labor.
3. The Prison Litigation Reform Act must be rescinded, allowing imprisoned humans a proper channel to address grievances and violations of their rights.
4. The Truth in Sentencing Act and the Sentencing Reform Act must be rescinded so that imprisoned humans have a possibility of rehabilitation and parole. No human shall be sentenced to Death by Incarceration or serve any sentence without the possibility of parole.
5. An immediate end to the racial overcharging, over-sentencing, and parole denials of Black and brown humans. Black humans shall no longer be denied parole because the victim of the crime was white, which is a particular problem in southern states.
6. An immediate end to racist gang enhancement laws targeting Black and brown humans.
7. No imprisoned human shall be denied access to rehabilitation programs at their place of detention because of their label as a violent offender.
8. State prisons must be funded specifically to offer more rehabilitation services.
9. Pell grants must be reinstated in all US states and territories.
10. The voting rights of all confined citizens serving prison sentences, pretrial detainees, and so-called “ex-felons” must be counted. Representation is demanded. All voices count!
We all agree to spread this strike throughout the prisons of Ameri$$$a! From August 21st to September 9th, 2018, men and women in prisons across the nation will strike in the following manner:
1. Work Strikes: Prisoners will not report to assigned jobs. Each place of detention will determine how long its strike will last. Some of these strikes may translate into a local list of demands designed to improve conditions and reduce harm within the prison.
2. Sit-ins: In certain prisons, men and women will engage in peaceful sit-in protests.
3. Boycotts: All spending should be halted. We ask those outside the walls not to make financial judgments for those inside. Men and women on the inside will inform you if they are participating in this boycott. We support the call of Free Alabama Movement Campaign to "Redistribute the Pain" 2018as Bennu Hannibal Ra-Sun, formerly known as Melvin Ray has laid out (with the exception of refusing visitation). See these principles described here: https://redistributethepain.wordpress.com/.
4. Hunger Strikes: Men and women shall refuse to eat.
How You Can Help:
· Make the nation take a look at our demands. Demand action on our demands by contacting your local, state, and federal political representatives with these demands. Ask them where they stand.
· Spread the strike and word of the strike in every place of detention.
· Contact a supporting local organization to see how you can be supportive. If you are unsure of who to connect with, email firstname.lastname@example.org·
Be prepared by making contact with people in prison, family members of prisoners, and prisoner support organizations in your state to assist in notifying the public and media on strike conditions.
· Assist in our announced initiatives to have the votes of people in jail and prison counted in elections.
For the Media: Inquiries should be directed to email@example.com
Leading up to this strike, prisons are clamping down on information transfer from within and from outside of the prison system.
The industrial prison complex remains one of the biggest businesses in the United States today. But, by utilizing strategies to combat its exploitation of workers as a disposable labor force, it is plausible that the end of legalized human slavery can be achieved.