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.