By DAVID W. MARSHALL
The Reconciled Body
(TriceEdneyWire.com) – “Involuntary servitude or involuntary slavery is a legal and constitutional term for a person laboring against that person’s will to benefit another, under some form of coercion, to which it may constitute slavery.” We’re taught that the 13th Amendment to the Constitution formally ended slavery in the United States, and we automatically think of slave labor as something back in the time of the antebellum South. Truthfully, slavery has never truly ended, only chattel slavery – slavery in which one individual is considered the personal property of another. “The 13th Amendment didn’t actually abolish slavery – what it did was make it invisible.” Bianca Tylek, the founder and executive director of the criminal justice advocacy group Worth Rises, told the Associated Press in an interview.
Section 1 of the 13th Amendment reads, “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” The exception clause for slavery as “punishment for crime” means the 1.2 million people who are convicted of a crime and incarcerated in state and federal prisons can still be legally enslaved.
According to Captive Labor: Exploitation of Incarcerated Workers report released by the American Civil Liberties Union and University of Chicago Law School Global Human Rights Clinic, 2 out of 3 incarcerated people are also workers of some type. They work as cooks, dishwashers, janitors, groundskeepers, barbers, painters or plumbers. They provide vital public services such as repairing roads, maintaining parks and cemeteries, fighting wildfires or cleaning debris after hurricanes. They washed hospital laundry and worked in mortuary services at the height of the pandemic. They manufacture products like office furniture, mattresses, license plates, dentures, glasses, traffic signs, athletic equipment and uniforms. They cultivate and harvest crops, work as welders and carpenters and work in meat and poultry processing plants. Unfortunately, a dehumanization factor is often attached to the prison population.
Therefore, prison labor is easily exploited and has become another means of cheap labor in America. Incarcerated workers are stripped of the most basic protections against labor abuse. They are denied workplace safety guarantees and are not covered by minimum wage laws or overtime protection. While workers are assigned hazardous work in unsafe conditions, they usually are not afforded the benefit of formal training or protective gear. Sixty-four percent of incarcerated workers surveyed said they felt concerned about their safety while working. The principal U.S. federal statute that sets standards and safeguards for health and safety in the workplace, the Occupational Safety and Health Act, excludes most incarcerated workers from coverage.
Prison labor is hugely profitable, but not for the individuals providing the labor. Typically, incarcerated workers earn just pennies an hour. While it is rare that a job pays more than a dollar an hour, those are the fortunate ones. In seven states, incarcerated individuals are forced to work while receiving no pay for most jobs they perform. The average minimum hourly wage paid to workers for non-industry jobs is 13 cents, and the average maximum hourly wage is 52 cents. Yet, incarcerated workers produce more than $2 billion in goods and commodities and over $9 billion annually in services for maintaining the prisons where they are housed. Most prison labor comes from Black Americans incarcerated in state prisons at nearly five times the rate of White Americans. It has become a captive labor force where most of the work is performed not by choice, despite those who say prison labor is technically voluntary. According to the report, “more than 76% of incarcerated workers report that they are required to work or face additional punishment such as solitary confinement, denial of opportunities to reduce their sentence, loss of family visitation, or lose the ability to pay for basic necessities like soap.”
While incarcerated workers are often invisible to the public, their primary labor beneficiaries are federal, state and local governments. In fiscal year 2021, the federal government’s UNICOR prison industries program reported $404 million in net sales of goods and services produced by the 16,315 federally incarcerated workers in the program.
America’s history of slavery and enslaved people has always been a sensitive subject for schoolteachers. Particularly when having open and honest conversations about the atrocities of slavery in mixed-race classrooms. Slavery education has often been mischaracterized and sometimes downplayed, leaving students and parents misinformed about the harsh realities while not fully respecting the fight for freedom waged by enslaved people or understanding the economics behind slavery. As a result, many people are often unable to connect the modern-day issues of prison labor and how they relate to America’s slave-based economy from the past.
During the recent midterm elections, voters in four states (Alabama, Oregon, Vermont, and Tennessee) approved ballot measures that will change their state constitutions to prohibit slavery and involuntary servitude as punishment for a crime. A fifth state (Louisiana) rejected a flawed version of the question. The measures represent an important step. The change in the legal status of incarcerated workers may make it easier in the future for prison workers to achieve some degree of worker protection and rights through legal challenges.
David W. Marshall is founder of TRB: The Reconciled Body, the faith-based organization. He is also the author of the book “God Bless Our Divided America.” He can be reached through https://www.davidwmarshallauthor.com.