The United States’ Prison Labor System

What Is Prison Labor?

On January 31st, 1865, the 13th Amendment essentially outlawing slavery was passed into law. However, the wording wasn’t simply an abolition of slavery. Instead, the 13th Amendment states, “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.” It’s the line, “except as punishment” which leaves a loophole for politicians to exploit the use of slavery. 

In American society, people often disregard prisoners’ rights, including forced labor or prison labor. Prisoners’ conditions are often considered justified because they’ve been deemed “criminal,” which Heiner explains is a highly subjective term. 

Subjectivity within the law allows room for prejudice and biased interpretation. So, it’s important to note that in the early years of the United States, when slavery was legal, many individuals worked day and night to “justify” the enslavement of Black people. So, if you believe that forced labor is “justified” because they’re criminals, it’s essential to acknowledge that justification is relative.


How Much Do They Make?

Prisoners subjected to prison labor, according to Holsten, make “$0.60 a day for arduous work that entails harvesting a number of crops.” Such pay is illegal in non-incarcerated populations and would obviously not be enough for anyone to live off. Thus, the issue with prison labor is why is it legal for prisoners to make such rates?

I must acknowledge that according to Holston and Crosson, prison labor is often considered a privilege by many individuals, sometimes including prisoners. Crosson explains that he looked forward to getting to do productive things to pass the time as a prisoner. And that accomplishing new tasks was rewarding in its way. 

While that maybe it’s not that prisoners are working that makes it dangerously close to slave labor. It’s that prisons pay the prisoners close to nothing. No one expects one to live off of or save off a $0.60 wage. Instead, it seems more like the prisons pay the money solely to say they pay the prisoners. 

In addition to the disgracefully low wages, Morgan, in an interview with NPR, explains that he “had to work.” And that “you don’t get days off. You don’t get to have sick days. And if I didn’t go to work, it was a rule violation.”

With such conditions, it sounds less like a typical workforce and, more accurately, like forced labor— i.e., slavery. It is not the compensation alone that separates slavery from. While government organizations, private prisons, and corporations argue that prison labor is different because inmates are paid an ever-so-slight amount of money, it is the issue of force that matters. In prison, there are no negotiations, no middle ground, and no livable wages. This force connects slavery and forced labor. Neither the slave nor the prisoner has a say in their circumstance. The slave either worked and lived or quit and died.



The American Cycle: Poverty and Prison

With an increasing cost of living and relatively stagnant minimum wage, matched with ever-fluctuating employment rates, poverty seems to be a never-ending cycle. Children who grow up in poverty are more likely to experience poverty as adults themselves. Whether this is due to the lack of educational resources, opportunities, or lack of guidance, the statistics speak for themselves. However, poverty in adulthood is not the only issue that impoverished children face growing up. Imprisonment rates in adulthood are also higher for children who grow up in poverty. And to complete the destructive cycle, previously incarcerated individuals are likely to earn zero income after releasement, therefore not being able to contribute to their household’s income. Thus, the cycle repeats for the children of these individuals, creating the American Cycle: Poverty and Prison.


Impoverished Children Facing Poverty In Adulthood

According to UNICEF, poverty affects children disproportionately. Nearly a billion children lack access to education, housing, nutrition, sanitation, or water, hundreds of millions living on less than $1.90 a day, and death rates twice that of their wealthier counterparts.

As is evident, children are much more vulnerable to the impacts of poverty. Therefore, it makes sense that studies show how children raised in poverty are more than likely to live their adulthood in poverty.

According to the Nation Center for Children in Poverty, out of the individuals who report living in poverty for 51%-100% (8-14 years) of their childhood lives, 40%-50% also report living in poverty from 20 years old to 35 years old.

The issue of intergenerational poverty becomes worse when you take a closer look. Upon further studies, the National Center for Children in Poverty finds that 24.8% of African American children are likely to live in poverty for 76%-100% of their childhoods compare to only 3.0% of whites.

Additionally, 71.7% of white people are likely to “never lived in poverty” compared to 29.6% of Black people.

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Impoverished Individuals Face Higher Rates Of Imprisonment

Children learn from the people who raise them and whom they look up to. This applies to all the good and bad qualities of adults. And inevitably, children who experience a parent or guardian going through incarceration have a higher chance of experiencing imprisonment themselves.

It is widely known that poverty levels increase with the level of one’s education level. However, the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Institute for Research on Poverty connects how individuals with lower education–and therefore high poverty rates– are more likely to be incarcerated at some point in their lifetimes.

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Re-entry Into Society 

When incarcerated individuals are released back into society, it is expected that they become “productive” members of society. However, that’s a big ask when you imagine the difficulty previously incarcerated individuals face finding work opportunities.

According to the Brookings Institute, their studies report that 51% of incarcerated individuals previously earned zero income in the 2 years before incarceration. And 44.5% report zero income during the first full year after incarceration. And only 55% of the total released individuals reported any income at all.

This shows two important things: as stated in the sections above, impoverished people are more likely than their wealthier counterparts to be incarcerated at some point in their lives. And after they are released from prison, many individuals don’t leave the poverty they endured beforehand.


The Cycle Repeats

As explained, impoverished individuals are more likely to go to prison than their wealthier counterparts. They are also more likely to leave prison with little to no income within the first year.

This means that individuals are likely to leave prison, go home to their impoverished families and raise their kids in poverty. And as was explained earlier, children who grow up in poverty and experience a parent or guardian’s incarceration are more likely to live in poverty and experience incarceration as adults.

Therefore, the American cycle of prison and poverty keeps individuals–disproportionately minority communities– cycling through the seemingly perpetual circle.


Released From Prison ­≠ Freedom

No one grows up wanting to spend their lives in a prison cell. Nevertheless, the United States prison system holds 2.3 million people within its walls, accounting for 25 percent of the world’s entire incarcerated population. Approximately 5.85 Americans are barred from voting due to criminal records. Millions of previously incarcerated individuals experience homelessness and poverty because they cannot find work. 

Which Rights Are Lost? 

When prisoners are released from prison, they are supposedly “free.” However, that “freedom” comes with many strings attached. Their rights often depend on the circumstances revolving around the instance, including the crime, severity, and location. The rights that can be potentially stripped include voting, traveling abroad, the right to bear arms or own guns, jury service, employment, public benefits and housing, and parental benefits.

The loss of all or some of the rights mentioned above, many previously incarcerated individuals find it challenging to find employment due to their criminal records.  Those who do manage to find work, the majority make well below the median wage. 

In an interview with NPR, Dominique Morgan discusses the issues with prison labor. Morgan addresses how he worked for a company, Oriental Trading, making tablecloths. When he was released from prison, he went to Oriental Trading to apply for the same job he had while incarcerated. Oriental Trading told Morgan that the application was denied because they didn’t hire individuals with criminal records. 

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

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If prison is about rehabilitation, why are previously incarcerated persons thrown out on the street with such limited options?

Criminal Record = No Voting In Some States

In most states, prisoners are barred from voting until sentences are completed; they’re barred for a lifetime in some states. Only in Maine and Vermont are currently incarcerated and previously incarcerated individuals given their right to vote. 

It’s first essential to realize crime is subjective and secondly understand that whether incarcerated individuals are criminals or not, they still make up “the people” of the United States. 

Incarceration And Income Level

The Brookings Institute conducted a study of incarcerated individuals. It surveyed their income levels 2 years before prison and a year after. 55.1 % of individuals made no income 2 years before prison. 44.5 % of individuals made zero income a year after incarceration, and 35.7% of individuals made $1-$15,000 their first year of releasement.

Brookings’ findings point out an issue with the cycle of poverty and prison, but it also shows that there isn’t much rehabilitation taking place. The United States Social Security Administration reports the 2019 median wage as 34,248.45.

(If you’re wondering why I don’t use the average, it’s because when you take an average of wages ranging from zero to billions, the outliers skew the result. However, we can assume that since most people fall in the middle class, we can take the middlemost wage (the median wage) and assume most people earn something near this amount.) 

Photo by Adrián Macías on Unsplash

With 80.2% of previously incarcerated individuals making below minimum wage, previously incarcerated individuals and their families are more likely to succumb to the hardships of poverty– homelessness, starvation, malnutrition, etc. 

Due to the likely hood of poverty, recidivism rates increase. Brookings states that “Boys who grew up in families in the bottom 10 percent of the income distribution were 20 times more likely to be in prison on a given day in their early 30s than children born in top ten percent of families.”  Which means when incarcerated individuals raise families in poverty, their children are more likely to wind up in jail. 

The data shows, “Almost one in ten children born to families in the bottom 10 percent were therefore incarcerated at age 30.” Incarceration haunts not only the individuals but their families and those who rely on them as well.



“Fist, Stick, Knife, Gun” By Geoffrey Canada

In Fist, Stick, Knife, Gun, by Geoffrey Canada, the three major points include the past, the changes, and the present because they help explain the current state of inner-city neighborhoods. In the past, Canada explains that to gain reputation on the block, one would fight, and winning said fights meant an increase in reputation. Children were “safe” more or less from other blocks when they were on their home block because the other children on their block would back them up. In this time, one learned empathy through learning to fight because they had to take some punches.

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While traumatizing in its own way, this type of life was mild to later changes. As Canada grew up, guns started to enter the streets, but they were limited to a few older kids. Furthermore, soon drugs, followed by guns, quickly became commonplace items on the street. As Canada explains in his book, guns, not toughness, determine the pack’s head. This explosion of crime helps explain the mass incarceration of Black people, the high arrest rates, and the many deaths within Black communities.

Often in the United States, many people discuss “Black-on-Black crime” —as if it’s any different than the regular crime— without realizing why crime is high in impoverished, minority communities. The increase in crime and drugs has no basis in an intrinsic fault among minorities or because minorities are dangerous people. Instead, high rates of crime are due to the circumstances to which individuals are subjected to.


Mothers and fathers who can’t or don’t care for their children leave teenagers and sometimes younger children to fend for themselves. Without a firm adult role model, who do they look to? As Canada explains in Fist, Stick, Knife, Gun, they looked to the “older boys,” were literally just the older kids who lived on the block.

multicolored wall with graffiti photo
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Canada explains that after he left for college, he only returned to the South Bronx for holidays. Still, the city was nothing like he remembered. Kids were used by significant drug suppliers to sell drugs, and they made more money than they or their families had seen in their lifetime. However, since they were kids, they couldn’t buy houses or cars like their older drug dealer counterparts. So, the kids bought clothes and jewelry. But, wearing expensive accessories in areas where robbery is highly likely meant that you were even more of a target. The only solution? Defend yourself.


Unlike how Canada grew up with fist fighting, the kids nowadays have access to firearms, and so, they bought them, no more needing to know how to fight. As kids increasingly obtained guns, there were no “codes of conduct,” as Canada calls them. Codes of conduct include when you can fight someone else and when you can’t.

gray hand cuffs with the key next to them.
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But with guns, Canada says, “Sometimes these days they yell and curse and then shoot you, sometimes they just shoot you.” So, without rules, people needed to defend themselves, so they also obtained guns, resulting in a tremendous number of weapons being carried down the streets.

Having the opportunity to go to Bowdoin College in Maine and Harvard School of Education, Canada was able to escape this environment. After graduating college, Canada eventually returned to New York City, Harlem, to be specific. He founded a Beacon Schools program that opens in impoverished neighborhoods where school enrollment is low, crime is high, and the city has no interest in fixing. These schools offer children extracurricular activities proven to benefit children, a security presence, and community involvement.

Canada has found that, through the opening of Beacon Schools, the community benefits directly. Crime goes down, enrollment increases, and even violence within the school goes down.

Photo by Ivan Aleksic on Unsplash

If you’re interested in crime in the United States, this book is highly recommended. Many individuals, including politicians, believe that the quick fix to crime and deviance is to increase police presence, such as Reagan’s War on Drugs. But Canada offers a different resolution. He advocates offering free, quality educations, security for children, and extracurricular activities.

When you think about it, in its simplicity, all that Canada is doing is offering kids a proper childhood. Children in these neighborhoods have to grow up all too quickly on the streets, which hardens a person. Through an education, activities such as the Tai Kwon Do program he leads, and a sense of safety, the children get to be children again. 

 And as any adult knows, childhood is short as it is, so shouldn’t children get to enjoy it in all its innocence and purity?

Here’s links to Canada’s work:

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  • Fist, Stick, Knife, Gun by Geoffrey Canada

The Black Panthers And The Police. Who’s Really Radical?

Source: The New York Times

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On February 1st, the movie Judas and The Black Messiah came out. If you haven’t seen it, I won’t ruin it, so don’t worry, no spoilers here. The movie depicts the Black Panther group, specifically the Chicago chapter led by Fred Hampton. The Black Panthers lay among the more radical side of the civil rights movement. Though not solely based upon violence, they weren’t afraid to get violent.

On the other hand, as many people know, Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. is considered the ultimate peacemaker in the Civil Rights Era. American History textbooks don’t cover much other than Martin Luther King Jr’s I Have A Dream Speech and Rosa Parks’ civil disobedience. This means things like Malcolm X., or in this case, the Black Panthers, are left unaddressed and open to uneducated opinions. 

Who Are The Black Panthers?

In 1966, the Black Panthers considered themselves a group founded for the self-defense of Black people. The group was initially founded by Bobby Seale, Elbert Howard, also known as Big Man, and Huey P. Newton. By the 1970s, the group began to see itself as a political party. It had upwards of 2,000 members across the country. Also, the group had set up community programs, one of which, as depicted in the movie, was a breakfast program where children were fed free meals. 

Grayscale photo of a man in a white polo holding a bottle and holding his fist in the air.
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Despite this, the organization had controversies that stated that members had tortured a suspected police informant within its organization, as portrayed in the movie. In 1969 two significant events occurred. Fred Hampton was assassinated, and J. Edgar Hoover declared the Black Panther movement a communist group.

  • Bobby Seale and Huey P. Newton meet at Merritt college in Oakland, California. -1961

  • Malcolm X. is assassinated -1965

  • Seale, Howard, and Newton found The Black Panther Party -1966

  • The group reaches 2,000 members -1968

  • Betty Van Patter, a Black Panther member, is beaten and murdered allegedly other members -1969

  • The Black Panther Party is designated a communist group by the FBI -1969

  • Chicago Police assassinate Fred Hampton and others and arrest Deborah Johnson. -1969

  • The Black Panther Party disbands officially. -1982


The Truth May Be Lost To History.


In the end, the movie depicts the assassination of Fred Hampton and many other members and the arrest of his pregnant girlfriend, Deborah Johnson, who now goes by Akua Njeri. The Chicago Police Department is responsible for the brutal murder of these people. Still, the movie heavily suggests that the FBI, under the authority of J. Edgar Hoover, was ultimately responsible for the assassination.

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 History confirms this theory but clarifies the FBI has never admitted its involvement in the assassination; however, “a federal grand jury later indicated that the bureau played a significant role in the events leading up to the raid.” So the truth to whatever may indeed have happened is probably lost to history.

Who’s Really The Radicals?

Civil rights leaders are often deemed “radical,” but as stated before, the education system hardly addresses such leaders and their group ideals. Malcolm X. is touted as radical and pro-violence; however, many historians clarify that he was instead a proponent of self-defense, which is a subtle yet essential difference. In this case, it’s the Black Panther Party which is still declared as even more radical than Malcolm X. 


The movie offer subtle hints that Fred Hampton may not have been radically violent. When the members go into rival territory, Hampton orders them to leave their guns in the car as a sign of peace. If someone refuses, as happens in one scene, Hampton tells them to stay in the car. Whether this is true or not, history goes to show that the Black Panther group, as founder Bobby Seale states, doesn’t “hate nobody because of color. We hate oppression.” If the police can have “bad apples,” can’t a civil rights movement also have them?  

History seems to repeat itself in that Black movements tend to die out or fizzle if not solely due to the government; they certainly had a hand in it. For example, Martin Luther King Jr., murdered, Malcolm X. murdered, Fred Hampton, murdered. These individuals were the leaders of monumental groups leading the civil rights movement, which fizzled out after their deaths. While there isn’t and probably never will be proof, in each case, the government had labeled each one a credible threat to society. 

The FBI, under Hoover’s authority, encouraged King to commit suicide and attempted to discredit him. Having converted to Muslim and thus arguably as “radical” as King at the time of their deaths, Malcolm X was considered “controversial in mainstream America” for his ideas of self-defense and self-empowerment. Malcolm X, like King, and Hampton, were under extreme surveillance through COINTELPRO. While the connections aren’t damning, if it smells fishy, it’s probably fish.

Whether the racial movement leaders were genuinely radical or not may be lost in history, but if they are considered radical, what must the police departments, the FBI, and the United States government be considered?

If these institutions were at the hands of these individuals’ murders, that’s far beyond radical. If they weren’t behind the murders, shouldn’t they have known of any threats? Logically, with the amount of surveillance from COINTELPRO, with bugged rooms and phone lines and secret informants, a threat must’ve been detected, so why weren’t they protected? We can’t change the past, and the past won’t necessarily change the future, but truth matters.

The way to right wrongs is to turn the light of truth upon them

– Ida B. Wells-Barnett

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