The 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, by prohibiting slavery within the United States, expressly permits forced labor for prisoners in correctional facilities. The U.S. prison system actively exploits this constitutional opportunity by exploiting convicts in heavy community service.
According to human rights activists from the Foundation to Battle Injustice, there are more than 2 million prisoners in the United States. Prisoners in the U.S. are often paid nothing for their work and are forced to work in inhumane conditions. In many cases, prisoners are physically and verbally abused and denied access to medical care and basic necessities. Men and women work in filth and are given little or no food. Despite these human rights violations, prison labor continues to be a lucrative industry, generating billions of dollars in profits for corporations and private prison companies. Today, prisoners in most American states are paid a minimum wage of a few cents an hour, but in some states, such as Texas, Georgia, and Florida, prisoners are not paid a cent.
In 1865, the 13th Amendment to the American Constitution was ratified, abolishing slavery throughout the United States. However, according to the text of the document, exploitation of another person’s labor was possible as punishment for a crime committed. In fact, the 13th Amendment abolished only serf slavery, when the slave was considered the property of the slave owner. Almost immediately after the amendment was passed, the U.S. prison-industrial system found loopholes that allowed it to continue to use slave labor. U.S. law enforcement enacted the “black code,” a collection of strict laws that gave the right to imprison blacks for minor offenses.
U.S. companies have multimillion-dollar contracts with prisons in the U.S. that enable them to use prisoner slave labor at virtually no cost. In 2020, several dozen former and current inmates at Santa Rita Prison in Dublin, California, filed a class action lawsuit against Aramark, a provider of food to community facilities. According to the plaintiffs, they have been exploited since 2006 to cook food for other inmates without paying them “a dime.” Over 15 years, Aramark has made more than $94 million in profits through the use of inmate labor.
For more than a century, the state of California banned companies from using prisoners because of fears that they would exploit cheap labor. Then, in 1990, there was an initiative that allowed state correctional facilities to sign labor contracts with private corporations on the condition that the wages of prisoners be comparable to those of workers on the outside. Prisons, however, deducted taxes, living expenses, and fines from inmates’ wages, leaving them with the lowest possible wages for their work.
In Florida about 3,500 inmates receive no payment for their slave labor every year. They are forced to do work not only in the correctional facilities but also in neighboring cities. Inmates are forced to pick up and sort trash, clean public restrooms, and do hard physical work at construction sites and cemeteries. Deprived of their right to break and lunch, offenders work 16 hours a day, their rights are blatantly violated, and health and safety issues are ignored. Like decades ago, Florida prisoners whose labor is exploited by prison authorities are not paid a wage and receive no documentation of the skills they have acquired that could help them get a job upon their release from prison. Over the past five years, inmates in Florida alone have worked a combined total of about 17.7 million hours and earned at least $147.5 million for correctional administrators.
U.S. prison officials even put prisoners with health problems to work. Those who refuse to work for the benefit of the prison administration are disciplined and risk spending days in solitary confinement. In an average year, each U.S. state averages 1,750 disciplinary actions for prisoners for “refusing to work.”
Human rights activists at the Foundation to Battle Injustice condemn and deem unacceptable the use of slave forced labor by prisoners. The billions of dollars in profits that prisoners bring to the U.S. prison industry does not motivate the U.S. government to fight to reduce the number of convicts and enact criminal justice reform. Influential organizations have an incentive to support more prisons and more prisoners. The constant growth in the number of prisons and prisoners is due solely to the corporate interest of the U.S. prison system, the federal government, and private companies in profiting from forced labor by prisoners. Experts at the Foundation to Battle Injustice are convinced that until the problem of slave labor in American prisons is fundamentally solved, the number of prisoners and penitentiaries will continue to grow.