The descendants of slaves continue to be disproportionately imprisoned as if forever destined to be the source of cheap production costs and wide profit margins. In today’s markets, cheap labor is an avidly sought commodity and in the U.S., prison labor is a hidden resource that underpins the profits of numerous America-owned companies. American stockholders and consumers have opposed Whole Foods’ use of prison-raised tilapia and Victoria’s Secret continues to suffer an economic slide after their use of prison labor to sew their products. Ironically, prison labor was made legal in the United States by the 13th amendment of the U.S. Constitution in 1865 which prohibits slavery “except as a punishment for a crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.” That exception has made it possible to finance private prisons and for the United States to have the highest number of incarcerated individuals in the world.
Nearly every state, federal, and private prison in the United States requires all healthy inmates to perform some work. The majority of prison labor is used to maintain prison facilities. Some inmates produce goods and services for private companies, nonprofit organizations, and other state or federal agencies. Private prison stock is publicly traded alongside the stock of America’s largest corporations.
Prison labor has been sanitized by a billion-dollar industry that is racially biased and encourages excessive incarceration. Easy access to prison labor has been institutionalized utilizing convoluted legalese and secrecy to shroud the sale of cheap prison labor and the organized effort to build and grow a hidden slave labor force.
The amount of prison labor supplying American corporations with goods and services is a strongly guarded secret and one that corporations do not care to discuss with shareholders.
It is not difficult to view prison labor as a modernized version of slavery or argue as many do that slavery never ended. Slavery in the U.S. changed little other than costumes allowing it to shape shift into the face of sharecropping, legal sanctioning of racial segregation and unpoliced terrorism, all of which brings slavery to its current iteration in the form of mass incarceration.
Prison labor provides corporations with a close at hand, inexpensive labor source. However, many American consumers and stockholders do not want to be publicly associated with products made by prison labor that pays what can only be described as slave wages. Productive prison laborers work on a variety of pay scales that range from $0.00 to $3 per hour. Prisoner pay of over $3 per hour is virtually unheard of as recompense for required labor that bears no relationship to rehabilitation and serves no valid function in reducing recidivism. A handful of prison jobs strategically pay minimum wage. This way a few chosen prisoners are given job responsibilities in writing in order to shield American companies from any accusation of paying slave wages to produce their products. Prisoners working for private corporations must also sign papers showing that their work is voluntary however, prisoner coercion is frequently reported.
The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) is a nonprofit organization of conservative state legislators and private sector representatives who draft and share model state-level legislation for distribution among state governments in the United States. In 2011 The Nation reported that ALEC had drafted model legislation for “states and corporations to replace unionized workers with prison labor.
Advocates of prison labor such as ALEC seem to have insinuated their views into its 2,000 legislative and 300 corporate members and there is evidence that indicates ALEC would like to increase incarceration rates to enlarge the prison labor pool without regard for the prisoner well-being. Prisoner exploitation in the U.S. is a profitable undertaking with a secretive desire to function in the stock market as an unseen resource. Prison labor is a force in a wide range of U.S. markets. The use of prison Labor is concealed from shareholders and consumers with blanket of legal and legislative maneuvers that blur the lines between a marketed product and the labor that produces it. Traces of prison labor in the U.S. may be found in work forces throughout the economy. Inmate labor has been exploited at production sites that range from farm work to call center employment
Progressive, empathetic investors and consumers are encouraged to scour the supply chains of corporations in their portfolio for signs of prison labor. Often the prison labor is several steps removed from the marketed product thus enabling many corporations to be marketed as fair labor companies without mentioning that prison labor is a part of their supply chain. Prison labor might well have manufactured the wiring in your appliances or harvested and processed the food on your plate. This secret slavery sullies our claims as a free and fair society, mocks the declaration of independence and belies any genuine effort to eradicate the remaining vestiges bondage.
Robert Earl Price is a poet, playwright, and journalist. His poems have appeared in numerous journals and anthologies including The Atlanta Review, Snake Nation Review, The Chattahoochee Review, Negro Digest and Drum Voices. Price’s latest play explores the 1619 unlading of slaves in Jamestown. His fifth volume of poetry, Blood Flow will be published in early July by Snake Nation Press and available on Amazon.