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US Prison Slave Labour: Low-Paid, Unpaid, Unfair



The Louisiana State Penitentiary is a former Southern slave plantation and now the United States largest maximum-security prison. An AP investigation has revealed that the prison forces inmates to raise cattle for minimal or no wages feeding a hidden supply chain that leads directly to major corporations like McDonald’s, Walmart, and Cargill.


A two-year investigation by The Associated Press found that agricultural products worth hundreds of millions of dollars, worked on by unpaid and underpaid prisoners, end up in the marketplace. These inmates, if they decline work, risk losing parole opportunities or facing harsh penalties like solitary confinement.


The use of prison labour in the United States is nothing new and America’s prison labour arrangements continue to confront us with the shadow of slavery. The US prison system ensures that those with the fewest rights are forced into labour, labour that feeds its free citizens. Undertones of a familiar and dark history surface, one that took advantage of the bodies and labour of millions. 


The comparison may seem extreme but it is a captive workforce in often appalling conditions without legal or work protections. Much of the labour does not constitute slavery but, to me, some certainly does. 


According to a report produced by American Civil Liberties Union, Roughly 800,000 people work in the US prison system, producing as much as $11 billion dollars a year in goods and services. From military equipment, to food production. The majority clean, fix, cook and launder for the Prison they are held in. On average, prisoners make between 13 cents to 52 cents an hour. However, Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, South Carolina and Texas pay nothing for the vast majority of prison labour.


Seemingly, no one with power does anything to bring the force of the law against the prison corporations which abuse the labour of their captives. But of course, they'll swiftly incarcerate those who commit the most petty of petty crimes. 

The United States infrastructure and legislation is utilised by companies and the forces of economic profit to abuse prison labour. The collaboration of private prisons and state legislature works together to use this workforce, as they wish to manufacturer higher profits for the sale of products. The prisoner has little to no right to refuse some of the harshest labour conditions in the world. 


Disturbingly, judicial decisions have established that prisoners can be mandated to perform labour and are not safeguarded by the constitutional ban on forced labour. EDespite the Thirteenth Amendment prohibiting slavery and involuntary servitude, it could be used “as punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.”

Prisons constitute one of the biggest workforce sites in the US. Many of America’s largest contributors to industrial markets have long fallen to dereliction; but where manufacturing survives is where labour is cheapest. This illustrates the motivations for expanding the global production network to other parts of the world, not as attempts to uplift, but rather opportunism and it is for this reason the US is wedded to prison labour. Corporations saw an exploitable workforce and pounced whilst the American government enabled the exploitation. 


The role of prisons has, of course, have been questioned for as long as we’ve had them. Typically we ask whether their primary role is one of deterrence, restorative justice, or rehabilitation? I would argue that prisons should perform all of these functions. 


Some might argue that labour in prison is rehabilitation, the rationale being that prisoners leave incarceration ready to be productive participants in society. However, the US has a 44% recidivism rate. It is a system that is in no way rehabilitative. Perhaps if their labour was remunerated the US would ensure they don’t leave prison with nothing, alienated and disenfranchised after working for little or no pay. 


Labour performed in prisons should also be congruent to work that can be found outside of prisons. While the skills prisoners learnt are applicable, the conditions are so degrading and demoralising they disincentive work. For example, 10.4% of jobs in the US are in the agricultural sector with 1.2% being farm work. Imagine if the labour in Louisiana State Penitentiary was fairly paid, perhaps those prisoners would look to go into the agricultural sector as workers.


The US market relies heavily on the unpaid or under-paid work of prisoners because obviously it generates huge profit. It’s barbaric. The opportunism and cruelty which benefits the accumulation of resources for the wealthy is unconscionable. There is slave labour used in the modern USA for the purposes of generating capital. 


As long prison labour can be exploited for minimal or no cost, then it will be. Furthermore, it is a labour force which is continually reproducing itself. If criminals are incarcerated and then reincarcerated as a result of their prison conditions and lack of resources, then they will reoffend. There’s a cycle, systemically ensured, that provides a labour force with no where to go and no choice in whether or not they work. 


The United States is a nation that claims its people are free but refuses to provide basic rights to its citizens. We should reform, not force the labour of prisoners sometimes as slaves. Basic necessities should obviously be provided to ensure everyone has the best opportunity to succeed in life and to participate in society. 


The abuse of human bodies for profit is reminiscent, and in some cases analogous to one of the darkest eras of our history. Rather than reforming its prisoners the US chains them to labour they are forced to perform for pennies or nothing a day. There's only one word to describe this abuse and its shadow cast across the United States. This is slavery.



Image: The Atlantic

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