Prison labor mirrors Jim Crows

Cheap work from inmates creates a new type of slavery.

Justin Yun, Writer

The use of prison labor as a cheap workforce along with the expansion of private prisons operated by for-profit companies in the U.S. has critics asking whether this marks the introduction of modern-day slavery.

Legal Penal Labor

The use of penal labor or legal slavery is allowed under the 13th Amendment of the Constitution, which states, “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for a crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”

Michelle Alexander writes in her book “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness” that “mass incarceration is, metaphorically the new Jim Crow.” Alexander claims  African-American males are more likely to be affected by old and new modes of discrimination by being labeled as felons, and it is evident the recent growth of for-profit private prisons in the U.S. has done nothing but strengthen these modes of repression and discrimination.

Private and Public

Corporations who run private prisons use powerful lobby forces to push for stricter laws to increase the prison population and in some cases, contract cheap prison labor to companies looking to cut down on their operational costs.

An estimated 30 to 40 percent of the firefighters battling the wildfires that engulfed California  last summer were state prison inmates. Over 4,000 of these inmate-firefighters save the state approximately $80 million a year. With California struggling in a four year drought and the looming disaster of climate change, there is a good chance the Golden State will continue to use prisoners as firefighters.

Politically powerful corporations using for-profit prisons to contract labor is inhumane, and Americans must stop interest groups aiming to continue America’s mass incarceration. America’s prison population will continue to grow if issues such as the school-to-prison pipeline are not fixed and the neoliberal assault on all things public are not stopped.

Redefining Work and Punishment

Even Tesla and Space-X CEO, Elon Musk, used prison labor to produce solar panels for his company, SolarCity. With an incarcerated population of 2.2 million people, the largest prison population in the world, the development of Supermax prisons and racially skewed prison population begets the question — have we resurrected slavery by redefining the nature of work and punishment?

Whitney Benns reports in an article in The Atlantic about Angola State Penitentiary, a once Southern slave-plantation now turned into a prison with a population that is 76 percent black. Using Angola as a jarring norm, Benns comments on the U.S. prison system stating, “our prison populations remain racially skewed. With few exceptions, inmates are required to work if cleared by medical professionals at the prison.”

Mirrored Conditions

The results of inmates denying to be used for labor hauntingly mirror conditions of slaves in centuries past.

“Punishments for refusing to do so include solitary confinement, loss of earned good time and revocation of family visitation. For this forced labor, prisoners earn pennies per hour, if anything at all.”

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