Prison slavery. Yeah, it’s a thing. Meaning it’s one of the ways the U.S. government monetizes the inmates in its custody. At the local, state and federal levels, prisoners quietly serve as the government’s own in-house workforce, helping reduce overhead and cut costs across the public sector. Prisoners are also the fodder of institutional labor trafficking, with correctional authorities routinely farming out inmate labor to the private sector. This labor has even come to play a role in the global economy. Critics say the traditional aim of prison labor as a means of prisoner rehabilitation has fallen by the wayside as the work looks more and more like a scheme to prop up corporate profits and the so-called prison-industrial complex.

Others allege that, through crushing debt and labor extraction, prisoners have been treated as revenue streams for cash-strapped local and state governments. What's it like to be a government slave? Incarcerated workers are paid next to nothing and have only threadbare protections. They cannot join unions. They commonly face subpar working conditions, coercion and abuse, with little means of redress. And while not all prisoners are overtly forced to take all jobs, most are left with little choice. Prisons have ways of making the alternatives even worse. But the plight of the working prisoner is just right for those looking to cash in. The government markets its captive workers to private-sector companies, encouraging them to outsource unskilled and skilled tasks alike to cut-rate American convicts as a way to boost profits and maintain a competitive edge.

It’s a sweet deal for them, and generates kickbacks for penal officials. In states across the country, businesses can dock inside vast carceral complexes outfitted with government-run factories and fields, some operating 24/7. Commercial enterprises can easily come in and exploit cheap, union-free human labor working under armed guard, any time they want a break from regular labor markets. The relative powerlessness of prisoners has fueled an unprecedented expansion of new-age 'prison industries,' built on the back of this invisible and highly disposable workforce.

Controversy and history

We're used to thinking of slavery as bad in an absolute sense, but this form of modern-day slavery has been legitimized by law, history, and the low social status of prisoners. Nevertheless, it has also been dogged by bitter controversy from its inception. Opponents have long-running humanitarian, racial justice, and economic concerns about prison labor that still resonate with many today.

Yet slave-status prison labor also has its partisans. They can point to the fact that the prison labor economy, slavery and all, is one hundred percent lawful. That's so because, once incarcerated, you lose so many of your rights, including your right to work with the recognition of a legal employee. You become enslaveable, as originally provided for under the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

The Thirteenth Amendment

In school, they teach you that slavery was abolished at the end of the Civil War, in 1865. The Thirteenth Amendment, ratified in that year, did in fact prescribe the end of slavery in the United States, but it spelled out an important exception: "Involuntary servitude" would henceforth be illegal — except as punishment for a crime. That is to say, only the government could enslave, and only then by means of the official judicial system with its due process rules.

Private businesses could still tap the cheapest and most disempowered labor, but they would have to go through state officials to access it. Despite much ado about the end of slavery then, it turns out many American merchants continued to enjoy the benefits of forced labor even after the Civil War ended. In 1871, the Virginia Supreme Court memorably reaffirmed the status of the American prisoner as a "slave of the state." Because the postwar order held that only convicted criminals could be made to work like slaves without rights,

criminalization (and criminal justice debt) quickly became the main means for generating fresh bonded labor. The system was known as the "convict lease." In its heyday, former slaves and their offspring had targets on their back. Discriminatory legal tools like "Black Codes" helped ensnare thousands of boys and men, who were ranked according to their perceived fitness and rented out to labor-hungry industrialists and planters for the duration of their sentence. During Reconstruction, incarcerated populations in the North and South filled out and 'darkened' considerably amid the mass influx of mostly Black convicts. Among those targeted were people who personally went from being chattel slaves to prisoner slaves within their lifetime, cradle to grave; for them, 'Emancipation' was truly an empty slogan.

Les miserables

People snatched up for the convict lease were treated much as the old slaves had been — they were held to discipline by the whip and lash. Indeed, the working conditions for rentals were often worse than those under chattel slavery, since renters don't have the same incentives as owners to sustain the assets they use. Forced to labor till they collapsed, latter-nineteenth-century prisoners died by the thousands in dark mines, factories, on roadside chain gangs and other job sites, destroying the life expectancy of those sucked into the system.

Labeling all these people 'criminals' helped justify their rotten treatment. Although the circumstances of prisoner work have changed a lot since the convict lease era, contemporary prison labor laws, attitudes and practices in many ways draw on the exploitative ethos of that time in American history.

Globalized 'corrections'

Clearly, prison slavery has a long history in the U.S. But it has recently undergone an unprecedented transformation. In today's climate of mass incarceration, America's vast new reserves of prisoner labor have become a hot commodity in the global economy. Prison officials in many states and nations market their local supplies of low-cost prisoner labor as a reason for globalizing companies to stay at home rather than offshoring operations. Many of the country's biggest firms have feasted at this trough in their efforts to suppress labor costs in the context of global competition: Whole Foods, McDonald's, Walmart, and more. Around the world, other countries are following the American example. As a result, elaborate 'correctional industries' have come to play a pervasive, yet cryptic role in the global economy. Deeply embedded in multinational markets, they silently lower production costs at the base of myriad supply chains, unbeknownst to consumers. Even companies that want to avoid prison labor may have a difficult time purging their supply chains due to the secrecy that increasingly surrounds the practice.

Beyond prison slavery

Prison labor has become a multi-billion-dollar business almost entirely at prisoners' expense. Meanwhile, discontent has grown. In 2016, prisoners themselves took the initiative to coordinate a wave of prison work stoppages across the United States in order to speak out against "modern-day prison slavery." The unexpected prisoner strike helped draw attention to the problems associated with uncompensated and inhumane penal labor. These and other efforts supporting reform may be bearing fruit. Outside the prison walls, more commentators in media and academia have begun to express support for policy changes such as: amping up prisoner worker pay and protections, legalizing prison workers as regular employees under the Fair Labor Standards Act, and limiting how much the government can take out of prisoner pay from private-sector jobs that actually do pay minimum wage. Proponents argue such reforms would make prison jobs more rehabilitative and help prisoners avoid recidivism. Maybe they would also make prison labor less of a spectacle of modern-day slavery!