This is the first in a three-part blog series authored by Polaris to introduce the issue.  Read part two here, and part three here.

The United States defines labor trafficking as the recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, or obtaining of a person for labor or services, through the use of force, fraud, or coercion for the purpose of subjection to involuntary servitude, peonage, debt bondage, or slavery.[1] While there is a growing awareness on human trafficking specifically sex trafficking, labor trafficking is still a neglected focus. One type of labor that has the potential to rise to the level of labor trafficking is prison labor.

Prison work programs typically target vulnerable individuals who are indigent, do not have the means to contribute to their commissary accounts to purchase food, hygiene products, or phone calls, have debts from the criminal justice system, or are misled with claims of job opportunities or skills that will help when they are released. In some cases, incarcerated individuals have no choice but to participate in work programs, they are mandated or forced to participate unless medically unable. Immigrant detainees are typically moved to detention centers in remote locations far away from their families and support systems including their lawyers, increasing their vulnerability to being pressured or forced into prison labor as well as restricting their ability to report abuses.[2] [3]

Incarcerated individuals’ communication is monitored and this means that it is difficult for them to report abuses or violation of their rights. Even if they could report on the exploitative conditions around their labor, many protections are unavailable for them as they are not considered “employees” in the traditional and legal sense and therefore are not protected by the Equal Pay Act, the Fair Labor Standards Act, the National Labor Relations Act, and U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).

Experts in the criminal justice reform movement as well as incarcerated people have linked prison labor to modern slavery, and formerly incarcerated individuals have increasingly spoken out about their experiences, asking why the anti-trafficking movement has not joined the fight.

Polaris, one of the country’s leading anti-trafficking organizations, in partnership with O.L. Pathy Family Foundation (OLP), has seen an opportunity to build understanding and support for the issue of forced prison labor as part of the anti-trafficking movement.  In 2017, OLP released their report, “Institutional Maintenance in Private Prisons: A Case of Labor Exploitation” which examined prison labor as a type of labor exploitation or trafficking. Polaris is building on this research by exploring ways in which immigration detention centers also utilize prison labor and how the two systems – immigration detention and corrections – are interconnected in their use of labor.

Over the next few weeks, Polaris will be authoring several posts on prison labor. The next in the series will examine the different types of prison labor. That post will also discuss the exploitative wages that exist for the various types of work and how the system of deductions and costs such as room and board make it even harder for individuals to reintegrate after their incarceration or detention. Our final post will discuss potential solutions and next steps to combat this problem.

[1] Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000 (2000). Retrieved from https://www.govinfo.gov/content/pkg/PLAW-106publ386/pdf/PLAW-106publ386.pdf.

[2] Human Rights Watch. (2009). Locked Up Far Away: The Transfer of Immigrants to Remote Detention Centers in the United States. Retrieved from https://www.hrw.org/report/2009/12/02/locked-far-away/transfer-immigrants-remote-detention-centers-united-states.

[3] Willets, S. (2018, August 29). Durham Officials Visited a Notorious Immigration Detention Center in Georgia. Here’s What They Have to Say About It. Indy Week. Retrieved from https://indyweek.com/news/archives/durham-officials-visited-notorious-immigration-detention-center-georgia.-say-it./.