You’re listening to Episode 36 of the Trafficking Dispatch, a biweekly podcast that briefs you on human trafficking issues in a brief amount of time. I’m your host, Ariel Niforatos.
In this episode, we’ll learn about one form of slavery that is still legal in the USA.
According to the International Labor Organization, forced labor is defined as “work that is performed involuntarily and under the menace of any penalty.” This penalty can be physical violence, or it can be subtler manipulation because of the laborer’s lack of power to change her or his situation. For example, the female migrant farmworkers we mentioned on our social media before are especially vulnerable to their labor conditions. Another group of people we don’t often think of as vulnerable is the prison population. The ILO indicates that prison labor under certain conditions is not considered forced labor. However, prisons across the world, and specifically in the United States, have often taken advantage of this clause to exploit prisoners for manual labor that is characterized by excessive physical work and very low wages. In this case, prison labor seems a lot like forced labor.
But if you don’t believe me, you can look at the United States Constitution itself. The 13th amendment of the Constitution clearly allows for one form of legal slavery in the country. It says, “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.” Basically this means that slavery is illegal in the United States, unless it’s being used to punish convicted criminals in our prison system.
And yes, this exception the abolishment of slavery is in full force to this day. In 2018, The New York Times published an article discussing the United States prisoners’ strike that protested unfair working conditions. According to the article, around 800,000 prisoners across the U.S. are exploited for labor every single day, and their wages are usually far lower than $1 per hour, reaching as low as 4 cents per hour in Louisiana. These prisoners are often subjected to horrible working conditions. One prisoner currently serving a life sentence wrote to The Guardian last year during the prisoner strike to tell them about the chain gangs, excessive work hours, and physical abuse prisoners experience across America.
A good question is, how is this abuse allowed to happen? Well, as I said earlier the 13th Amendment abolished all slavery and forced labor except for incarcerated people, actually making exploitation of prisoner labor legal. Under this Amendment, prisoners are allowed to be exploited for manual labor ranging from factory work to trash clean-up. This forced labor is also highly racialized. Because African American men make up the majority of the prison population across the country, these men are the most likely to be exploited for prison labor. This targeted exploitation only contributes to a vicious cycle of racism that has and continues to divide America.
Private prisons—meaning those that function as for-profit organizations—harbor the most exploitative forms of prison labor. In an article published last year in The Stanford Daily, author Tiger Sun discussed this very issue. Sun wrote that this labor is especially fostered in privately-owned prisons because of the sheer magnitude of profit made from it, reaching over $1 billion a year, which creates an incentive to imprison more people so that their labor can be exploited. This produces a dehumanizing environment in prisons that leads to overcrowding, poor conditions, and ultimately a lack of focus on trying to rehabilitate prisoners and instead merely housing them and barely meeting their needs for survival.
So far, we’ve seen that some kinds of prison labor are actually abusive because of their unfair compensation and poor working conditions. It’s important to realize that, though the population we’re discussing involves people incarcerated because they’ve committed crimes, prisoners are still vulnerable because of their lack of rights and deserve to be treated with human dignity.
Additionally, where do we draw the line between who we feel might deserve such punishment and who might not? If forced labor is allowed to continue in prisons, then people who are actually innocent in the first place will also be subject to this abuse. For example, in today’s hostile climate towards immigration, more undocumented people are being incarcerated and, thus, are extremely vulnerable to prison labor. A good article that talks about this worrying issue is “Why are for-profit US prisons subjecting detainees to forced labor?” by Azadeh Shahshahani that was published in The Guardian in 2018.
If you’re interested in learning more about this topic, I recommend reading the article “The Prison Industry in the United States: Big Business or a New Form of Slavery?”, which gives a good overview of the incentives for and statistics on prison labor. You can also look at the Prison Policy Initiative website—the link is below—to see how much prisoners are paid in each state in the United States.
As always, there are steps that you can take to fight against this abuse. You can join organizations in your community or school that campaign for divestment away from private prisons so that these prisons won’t be funded. You can also research the companies you buy from to ensure that their supply chains are free of prison labor. A more drastic method is to switch banks if you currently have an account with a mega-bank since these banks often endorse prison labor. Lastly, you can vote for politicians who take a stance against prison labor in your country.
And now, let’s take this time to focus on our next Audible Audience submission! I’ll turn it over to Victoria to announce this segment, Victoria.
Victoria: Thanks Ariel! This episode’s Audible Audience segment comes from our listener, Armie Hicks in the USA. Take it away, Armie!
Armie: Hi, I'm Armie Hicks, the writer and director of Circuit, a film that is inspired by real life stories that have been shared with me by survivors of human trafficking. This film focuses on women of color fighting for their lives and freedom. If you want to find out more, please go to our social media sites at instagram.com/circuitshortfilm, facebook.com/circuitshortfilm, and twitter.com/circuitfilm. Please also search our hashtag at #circuitshortfilm. Like, share, and spread the word today.
This has been the Trafficking Dispatch with Ariel Niforatos. You can subscribe to our SoundCloud channel and tune into our next episode which will be released on April 7th at 5 pm. Or, if you would like to interact with us before then, you can visit our website at thetraffickingdispatch.com, follow us on our social media accounts – our handles are below – or email us with any questions or suggestions at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thank you for tuning into this episode, and we hope you’ll tune in again to join the fight against human trafficking.
NYTimes article: www.nytimes.com/2018/08/30/opinion/national-prison-strike-slavery-.html
Prisoner’s statement to Guardian: www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/aug/23/prisoner-speak-out-american-slave-labor-strike
Tiger Sun’s piece: www.stanforddaily.com/2018/03/15/prison-labor-modern-slavery/
Immigration forced labor: www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/may/17/us-private-prisons-forced-labour-detainees-modern-slavery
Ways to fight prison labor: www.greenamerica.org/hidden-workers-fighting-change/sale-now-prison-labor
Conversation describing the USA prisoner strike in more detail: https://theconversation.com/us-prisoners-strike-is-reminder-how-commonplace-inmate-labor-is-and-that-it-may-run-afoul-of-the-law-101948
Prison Policy Initiative (how much prisoners earn in each state in the USA): www.prisonpolicy.org/reports/wage_policies.html?gclid=CjwKCAjwzenbBRB3EiwAItS-u3c-36qkFkFRkcSS2g-XKLYpxFId7hHC5AreDxEMvIlEqHaYNvr_uRoCGbUQAvD_BwE
Angola prison (2015)— example of exploitative forced prison labor: www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2015/09/prison-labor-in-america/406177/