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Prison Labor: Modern Slavery


Prison Farm

I don’t see how we in this nation can claim that slavery no longer exists. Because a state with 140,000 prisoners is forcing them to work for free without the ability to quit without punishment. The combination of a lack of payment and inability to quit your job is in fact the definition of slavery. That 68% of the prison population is black and Latino is surely coincidental, right?

The Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) has the biggest prison population in the United States (over 140,000 prisoners) and the most prisons of any state (over 100). It is also known for being one of the most self-sufficient and profitable prison systems in the nation, thanks to prison labor.

Beef, pork, chicken and vegetables are raised, processed and harvested by prisoners. Soap and clothing items are manufactured through prison labor as well. Prisoners in Texas grow 24 different crops and tend to over 10,000 head of cattle. They also act as painters, electricians, maintenance workers, cooks, janitors and dog trainers.

It is wrong that this labor, which is managed by Texas Correctional Industries (TCI), is being forced upon prisoners, who are required to execute it for free. If they refuse, they receive discriminatory punishment and thus longer stays in prison.

That’s right: prisoners in Texas are working for free. Total sales for TCI in the fiscal year 2014 alone were valued at $88.9 million, and not one dime of it was used to pay those who produced this handsome reward. Whenever TCI is scrutinized by the public for this practice, they note that prisoners receive other rewards for their labor, such as time credits called “Good Time” or “Work Time.”

On paper, these credits are supposed to cut down the prisoner’s sentence and allow them to be released on mandatory supervision — earlier than they would if these credits didn’t exist. But in reality, mandatory supervision is discretionary. This means that the parole board doesn’t have to honor these credits. It can keep denying a prisoner’s release until they have served their entire sentence.

TDCJ claims that the prisoners’ free labor pays for their room and board, while the actual work gives them job skills to successfully seek and maintain employment upon their release. Georgia, Arkansas and Alabama are other states that utilize this money-making scheme. The other 46 states — one way or another — pay prisoners for their labor with funds that can be used to purchase items off the prison commissary.

Some prisoners work — for free — up to 12 hours a day. This is flat-out, modern-day slave labor and it will continue as long as society accepts the notion that prisoners deserve less.

Remind me how this is not slavery?

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  • Linnaeus

    Remind me how this is not slavery?

    Because they’re prisoners and hence we can rationalize any treatment of them.

    • Jackov

      The road to slavery is paved with rape and torture.

      • so-in-so

        And a for-profit penal system.

  • Funny, you should ask, as I’ve been studying the 13th amendment lately.

    It reads:

    “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.”

    Now, obviously, that “except as a punishment for crime” clause was deliberate. But, I’m fascinated with the “nor involuntary servitude,” which was also deliberate.

    Have you read that James Gray Pope piece I sent you?

    • I am so overwhelmed that I have a huge backlog of stuff to read. Still have it though. Light sort of at end of tunnel, maybe.

      • Well, then I’ll spare you my fresh 31 pages of nonsense.

    • citizen

      Note, though, that the work is not described as “punishment for a crime” but rather as necessary to defray the costs of their imprisonment. This could be specifically prohibited by the constitution.

      Of course, the states can re-tool by making it punishment…

  • PohranicniStraze

    “Remind me how this is not slavery? ”

    Because they aren’t born into it, or captured and arbitrarily forced into it? Because the required labor will end when their sentence is completed? Because their status will not be automatically passed to their children?

    Not saying there aren’t issues surrounding the use of prison labor, but comparing it to chattel slavery, as formerly existed in the United States and still exists in some places, is hyperbole.

    • Drexciya


    • Orphos

      Chattel slavery is not all forms of slavery, and historically speaking isn’t even the most common. POW or conquered citizen-turned-slave was also quite common in the ancient world, and didn’t automatically pass status on to children. The slaves could be manumitted, and in many cases could buy themselves.

      This may sound like pedantry, but just because the US practiced one of the worst/most extreme forms of slavery doesn’t mean there aren’t other kinds. Modern human trafficking in general doesn’t meet the requirements you just laid out, but it’s still slavery.

      ETA: I probably should’ve just gone with Drexciya’s answer.

      • Just_Dropping_By

        While there are indeed many types of slavery, in the US the term “slavery” without any modifiers in front of it (e.g., “debt slavery,” “sex slavery,” etc.) has pretty much exclusively been used to mean chattel slavery, which is almost certainly why the authors of the 13th Amendment went to the trouble of also banning “involuntary servitude” and not just “slavery.”

      • PohranicniStraze

        That’s a good point, and to be honest I didn’t think about earlier, non-American forms of slavery until after I posted.

    • CrunchyFrog

      The 13th amendment reads:

      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.

      Well. That very clearly states that it’s still slavery/involuntary servitude even if it is “a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted”.

      • cpinva

        “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted,”

        but I’m guessing nowhere in any of these prisoner’s sentences does it specifically state that “involuntary servitude” is part of it. if that’s the case, then TX would still clearly be in violation of 13A, because the punishment meted out by the court was strictly loss of liberty, which isn’t the same as being forced to work, two entirely different animals.

    • Riggsveda

      Aside from the other good answers here, I would suggest you read “Slavery by Another Name,” by Douglas Blackmon if you haven’t already. It lays out the methods by which (especially) the South managed to get around the outlawing of slavery by instituting a network of laws designed to ensnare black men in a corrupt multi-level system of Jim Crow, law enforcement, magistrates/judges, and prisons, that basically framed them and sent them off to work for municipal and private interests, where they often died before they could ever get out. Not since slavery had such cheap labor been so easily available. The work was as brutal and the treatment sometimes worse than that afforded slaves. Why? Because a slave was an investment and an expensive one. Prisoners were out there for the snaring and there were as many available as there were black souls walking the earth, so if they lost one to malnutrition or injuries or murder, they could easily replace him. This situation reminds me very much of that.

    • delazeur

      The prison populations that do this work are overwhelmingly Black and Latino, and overwhelmingly serving life sentences. We have a criminal justice system that targets people of color for minor offenses, gives them draconian sentences, and then forces them to do hard labor for little (if they are lucky) to no money (if they are not).

  • CrunchyFrog

    Colorado has an anti-slavery amendment on the ballot this fall.

    In 2016.


    • runsinbackground

      It’s an amendment to remove the word “slavery” from the section of the state constitution that prohibits slavery in the state. I challenge any member of the commentariat to find me a smaller gnat to strain at.

    • Just_Dropping_By

      Did you actually read the story? Characterizing the measure as an “anti-slavery amendment” is like claiming an amendment repealing the 13th Amendment is an “anti-slavery amendment.”

      • CrunchyFrog

        Fair. I read a summary of the Amendment from another source and added that reference to the post from Google but didn’t read the details – you’re right, the summary was not correct.

  • Manny Kant

    Because prison labor by prisoners convicted of crimes is explicitly excluded from the 13th Amendment?

    • rm

      That only explains why it’s legal. It is still slavery and is still wrong.

    • Murc

      This is true, Manny, but it is also true that “involuntary servitude” has traditionally been interpreted very narrowly.

      I mean, the draft is also involuntary servitude, but that’s regarded as legal due to a whole lot of hand-waving.

      • Joe_JP

        draft is also involuntary servitude

        So is jury duty, if you want to take it literally and ignore the traditional context of the words. The 13A’s phrasing goes back to the late 18th Century at least with it usage in the Northwest Ordinance. It didn’t cover required militia service.

        OTOH, there is a specific exception in the text that recognizes that prison labor is a form of involuntary servitude and/or slavery (probably more the former, since prisoners have rights slaves don’t) that is allowed. Not a civic duty like the draft or jury service or kids going to school.

        Something “really” worthy of the term given its historical scope and meaning.

    • cpinva

      “Because prison labor by prisoners convicted of crimes is explicitly excluded from the 13th Amendment?”

      yes, if that’s part of their punishment. i’ll wager none of those prisoner’s sentences includes any reference to forced prison labor, strictly loss of freedom. go ahead and read 13A again, and show me where it states that enforced servitude is automatically included, as punishment. hint: it isn’t.

      • Manny Kant

        You’d really wager that?

    • delazeur

      Yep, the 13th says that slavery is legal under these circumstances. Good on you for noticing!

      It turns out that our legal texts don’t always reflect what is morally right, and sometimes we have to change them. That’s why it’s the 13th Amendment. Maybe we should think about adding another one so that slavery is illegal under all circumstances?

      • so-in-so

        I would think a court so inclined could prohibit prisoner labor under the 13th unless the sentence specifically included “at hard labor” or the like. Which would mean the Texas legislature would get busy adding that to the required sentences for an array of crimes most often blamed on non-white people.

        • delazeur

          Possibly, but if such a court exists the Fifth Circuit certainly isn’t it.

  • runsinbackground

    Yet another reason to stay the fuck out of Texas.

  • Owlbear1

    It is slavery. That is why the citizens of Texas, Georgia, Arkansas and Alabama chose it as their mode of incarceration.

    It no doubt makes many of them feel very powerful in an otherwise powerless existence.

  • Chad

    Is the practice really much different than states/prisons that also require inmates to work and pay them some small fraction of the minimum wage (cents per hour)? Shrugs. I’m all for making prison labor “voluntary,”* but the level of the wage or other, non-monetary benefit that prisoners receive should seemingly be “negotiable.”* Regardless of how de minimus that wage/benefit is, I would imagine that a substantial number of prisoners would still choose work over the alternative.

    *As these terms are typically used in the employment context outside of prisons.

    • NonyNony

      Actually prisoners should be required to charge prevailing wage for prison labor, and the money should be set up in a fund for the prisoners to pay out on their release to help transition out of prison life and back into society.

      Because in addition to the horrible moral and ethical problems with using prisoners as slave labor, there’s also the fact that using prisoners as slave labor depresses wages for workers who might be contracted for the same jobs. There’s no reason that prisons should be allowed to lowball costs and put the money into the prison’s budget even if we’re going to continue to allow “hard labor” as a punishment (which to be clear I don’t think we should – but then I also only think prison should be for violent offenders and the use of violent offenders on a work detail tends to be problematic.)

      • Linnaeus

        NED GRIMES: If this keeps up, you’re gonna put me out of business

        WARDEN NORTON: Ned…

        GRIMES: This pool of slave labor you got, you can underbid any contractor in town.

        NORTON: Ned, we’re providing a valuable community service here.

        GRIMES: That’s fine for the papers, but I’ve got a family to feed. Sam, we go back a long way. I need this new highway contract. I don’t get it, and I go under. That’s a fact. Just have some of this fine pie my missus made specially for you, and you think about that.

        NORTON: Ned, I wouldn’t worry too much about this contract. Seems to me I already got my boys committed elsewhere. You be sure and thank Maisie for this fine pie.

        • Brett

          Love that movie. Having read both the novella and watched the film, I think the film is better.

          • delazeur

            Agreed. Both are wonderful, though.

          • Linnaeus

            As an aside, I’m not a huge Stephen King fan, but when I do read his work, I tend to like his nonhorror or not-quite-so-horror writing better.

      • Manny Kant

        I’d agree, although I’d think it would be reasonable to take room and board charges out of whatever you’re paying the prisoners. (Room and board charges based on the actual cost of housing and feeding prisoners to the state, not some made up number)

  • BobBobNewhartNewhartSpecial

    This means that the parole board doesn’t have to honor these credits.

    Slightly off the main topic, but parole boards are things that really need to end. They are accountable to no one and often arbitrarily screw prisoners just like this.

    • Just_Dropping_By

      So what’s your solution? Abolish parole?

      • Owlbear1

        Stop basing it on “begging the board” and introduce standards on education and vocational achievements.

        • twbb

          “introduce standards on education and vocational achievements.”

          Who would determine whether those standards have been met? Maybe some sort of board…

          • Owlbear1

            But a not a group of people sitting at a table arbitrarily interrogating the prisioners.

            There are far too many petty egotisical dictators on parole boards.

            • BobBobNewhartNewhartSpecial

              Owlbear nailed it. When people argue against parole boards they aren’t necessarily saying abolish any chance of early release, or get rid of any oversight of that early release. It’s just that the current parole board system works in an arbitrary and unaccountable way, and needs to be fixed.

              Example: https://www.washingtonpost.com/national/the-power-and-politics-of-parole-boards/2015/07/10/49c1844e-1f71-11e5-84d5-eb37ee8eaa61_story.html

            • keta

              Parole Board chairman: They’ve got a name for people like you H.I. That name is called “recidivism.”

              Parole Board member: Repeat offender!

              Parole Board chairman: Not a pretty name, is it H.I.?

              H.I.: No, sir. That’s one bonehead name, but that ain’t me any more.

              Parole Board chairman: You’re not just telling us what we want to hear?

              H.I.: No, sir, no way.

              Parole Board member: ‘Cause we just want to hear the truth.

              H.I.: Well, then I guess I am telling you what you want to hear.

              Parole Board chairman: Boy, didn’t we just tell you not to do that?

              H.I.: Yes, sir.

              Parole Board chairman: Okay, then.

          • delazeur

            You could have a board that creates uniform standards for all prisoners, rather than a board that makes arbitrary case-by-case decisions.

  • cpinva

    I’d be curious to know what the breakdown of those 140,000 prisoners is? how many are in there for violent crimes, how many for “Drug War” related crimes, such as possession of pot, with intent to distribute, etc. I expect TX, and many other southern states, have been thankful to Pres. Nixon, ever since he opened that pipeline to jail, back in the late 60’s.

  • Whidby

    This post sounds like something Glenn Greenwald would say.

  • AMK

    From a conservative standpoint, the only problem here is that according to its website, TCI is a “Department within the Texas Department of Criminal Justice”—ie, the plantations are socialized. True Freedom requires that the slavery be privatized so that all the gains from the slave labor flow directly into some billionaire’s offshore holding company instead of the state treasury. If you people want nanny-state chain gangs, go the hell to Sweden.

  • Hells Littlest Angel

    It IS slavery, but it’s the kind the 13th Amendment says is okay. That fucking amendment needs amending.

    Does anyone know which (Deep South, presumably) Congressmen forced the inclusion of the “punishment for crime” clause?)

    • PohranicniStraze

      The Deep South states were under Reconstruction governments, so I doubt they had a whole lot of say in the matter. The language in question came straight from the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 which banned slavery in the Midwestern states.

      • Sev

        Thanks. The historical derivation of the language as you cite it fits with my (admittedly superficial) understanding that slavery was what was done to Africans, while involuntary servitude was what happened to white English men and women who were in legal difficulties or in debt, as in Moll Flanders, and typically was of limited duration- eg 7 years.

    • I’m pretty sure “hard labor” was a nationwide phenomenon at the time, so I doubt it was a Southern intrusion at the time. Not that Southern states didn’t take advantage of it when they had the chance.

    • Manny Kant

      Umm…no Deep South congressmen, given that there weren’t any in 1865.

    • delazeur

      Remember that Maryland, Delaware, West Virginia, Kentucky, and Missouri were Union slave states. Some of the other Union states presumably had slavery-sympathizers in Congress as well.

  • Bleeding Heart of Texas

    Too tired to look myself, so I’m throwing this out. How do private, for-profit prisons complicate this?
    I think I’m OK with prisoners doing state work, from picking up trash on the side of the road to fighting forest fires. But can a private company be empowered, through a contract with the state, to take advantage of that exception in the 13th amendment?
    I seem to remember a story about a prison in Colorado that ran a (goat?) dairy in an area where that was a legit enterprise. The pitch was that the prisoners learned a marketable skill (goat dairying) that would help them transition back to productive society. The problem was that the prisoners got paid pennies so the prison was able to undercut the local dairies. When the ‘graduates’ got out there were no other dairies left to work for. I don’t remember that the prison was private, but could it be?

    • Drexciya

      How do private, for-profit prisons complicate this? I think I’m OK with prisoners doing state work, from picking up trash on the side of the road to fighting forest fires.

      Slavery is less slaveryish if they’re doing it for the state? Why? Also, you know the prisoners conscripted to fight fires in places like California make as little as 2 dollars a day for their incredibly dangerous work, right?

      • Jackov

        In California, prisoners volunteer for the conservation camps/fire fighting. When 4,400 minimum custody inmates would rather work 24 hour shifts battling wildfires in harsh terrain because it is preferable to being incarcerated in state prison your state’s penal system has significant problems. The state is so reliant on prisoner fire fighters, AG Harris’ office argued against extending early release credits to inmates who had volunteered for conservation camps.

        • liberalrob

          “volunteer” huh…can a prisoner really be said to have “volunteered” for anything? Even if he genuinely feels he volunteered, there’s so much coercion in play that I’d be reluctant to consider it the same as volunteering for a non-prisoner.

  • keta

    It looks like Friday could see US prison conditions become a major national story.

     This September 9, we may witness the largest prison strike in US history. Potentially thousands of inmates across both state and federal prisons in as many as 24 states plan to engage in a coordinated strike and protest in an attempt to bring attention to the daily injustice of their lives. The strikers are calling for an end to “slave-like” working conditions, illegal reprisals, and inhumane living conditions.
    Planned for the 45th anniversary of the Attica Prison uprising, the actions of September 9 will shed light on the often decrepit conditions suffered by the 2.4 million people in what is the largest carceral system in the world.
    … But there is one issue that has driven the energy behind September’s actions more than any other: Prison labor. Across the US, there are nearly 900,000 inmates who currently work in prisons. In states such as Colorado and Arizona, inmates earn as little as little as a few cents per hour for their work. In Texas, Alabama, Georgia, and Arkansas, incarcerated people are forced to work for free.

  • Taters
  • It’s a pity in a way that Ilya Repin’s great painting of a gang of miserable peasants hauling a boat on the Volga is not actually of a katorga chain gang (wrong region) or estate serfs (wrong date).

  • The word you are looking for is gulag. The Nazi camp system involved a lot of forced labour, but since they couldn’t decide whether it was more important to extract labour from the demon-slaves or kill them off, it was all very inefficient. In Stalin’s Soviet Union, it was a key part of the economy.

  • glasnost

    This is horrible, and it needs to be fixed. But there’s a complication lurking underneath that’s hard to deal with: In the same way the solitary confinement is worse for you psychologically than socialization, lack of access to work programs is worse for you than access. The solution is to increase the wages of these work programs, not to get rid of them.

  • libarbarian

    68% of the prison population is black and Latino

    Well, that’s the rub. But tell me there aren’t some white guys who could use a chance to learn what it’s like to do real work.

    • libarbarian

      For instance, the author of this dreck is absolutely begging to mine Alaskan gold in a fucking burlap sack.

      • in a fucking burlap sack.

        Oh, I think he’d benefit far more from a burkini.

  • Joe_JP

    Well, it’s at least involuntary servitude, “slavery” (the comments have pushback on this) suggesting a certain condition matching in some fashion our own history of black slavery by “other persons.”

    The 13A expressly allows it and people when it is pointed out to them probably wouldn’t deny it’s a form of “involuntary servitude,” but will point out things like “well they were convicted of crimes and unlike you and me are forced to stay in cages, have basic freedoms taken away including freedom of movement.”

    The problems with the abuses prison labor brings forth including competition with non-prison labor does make it bad policy in various respects. As noted, room/board and things like compensation to victims (perhaps only a percentage?) would have to be deducted. Some compensation would seem appropriate. And, just using it as an excuse to have farm labor or the like is liable to cause problems too.

    But, not allowing prisoners simply to stay in their cells & being required to do work isn’t really a great wrong to me personally. They are being punished and their basic freedoms are taken away.

    • liberalrob

      “Chain gangs” are a popular policy with some people.

      I think it’s pretty hard to argue that “having their basic freedoms taken away” and “being required to do work” is not a fairly good definition of slavery.

      • Joe_JP

        Being required to “do work” and “chain gangs” aren’t the same thing. It’s noted various bad things are popular policies. Arguments from popularity only goes so far. Yeah. Get that.

        Your analysis seems to require prison itself to be slavery, which I don’t think it’s that hard to push back against. Prison is going to entail “having their basic freedoms taken away” … prison isn’t much if that isn’t the case. Freedom of movement etc. is taken away.

        So, we are left with the “required to do work” part as the game changer. Elementary school children are “required to do work.” Now, I know some consider school a form of slavery, but that isn’t that hard to push back against. Being required to work in a prison library is to me not quite slavery.

        It’s a form of legitimate involuntary servitude.

        • Joe_JP

          But, maybe the argument is prison IS slavery.

          Prison is per se unconstitutional? Maybe, that’s a reasonable argument. Still, not sure how “hard” it is to argue the other way. This includes the fact that it is reasonable to argue that at least some sort of work requirement (which is true in many contexts such as in school) is necessary to run a good prison.

          Or, perhaps, “slavery” means something a bit more narrow, slavery being currently a basic crime against humanity, while prison, even if it entails some sort of work requirement, not.

          • Joe_JP

            This thread is probably dead but came to mind that of course the 13A provides an exception — maybe the exception only applies to involuntary servitude.

            But, what I meant here is that Erik basically is arguing as prison labor as modern slavery is a bad thing. Something we should end. Don’t think that is the same thing as saying prison should end.

  • delazeur

    It’s worth pointing out that the picture in Erik’s post is from the Louisiana State Penitentiary, which actually used to be a slave plantation and still operates like one.

  • YosemiteSemite

    Well, as you surely know, Erik, slavery in the American context is racialized perpetual hereditary chattel slavery. Penal servitude, even when its conditions are odious, is not the same as slavery.

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