By Briana Simmons, Research Assistant
Recently, many prominent anti-trafficking organizations lauded the passage of a bill closing a loophole that allowed the import of goods produced by forced labor. None of them noted the irony that the US Constitution allows for such goods to be produced, sold, and consumed within its borders.
This hypocrisy is significant as the U.S. incarcerates more of its own people than any other nation in the world, exposing them to forced commercial labor within state and federal penitentiaries while banning the import of goods produced by convict labor abroad.
The 13th Amendment reads, “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except for punishment of a crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, nor any place subject to their jurisdiction,” (emphasis added). While this amendment allows for forced labor of prisoners, more recent federal law requires it. According to federal trafficking legislation, obtaining a person by force for the purpose of involuntary servitude is labor trafficking– except for prisoners.
While anti-trafficking organizations lament the outsourcing of jobs to parts of the world with exploitive labor conditions, they often fail to acknowledge how the high rates of incarceration in the U.S. creates an immense, involuntary domestic labor force earning little to no money in compensation for their labor.
Douglas Blackmon, author of Slavery by Another Name, has written extensively on the convict leasing system’s use of criminalization to create a labor force replacing chattel slavery. This system remained intact until the 1950s- about 85 years after the passage of the 13th Amendment in 1865.
Prior to mass incarceration, the convict leasing system thrived in the Southern region of the U.S. Small or invented infractions resulted in arrest and conviction. In order to pay off fines, a convict’s labor was contracted out to plantation owners and private companies where there were little to no labor protections, and some laborers were worked literally to death.
As in the era of convict leasing, modern prison populations are disproportionately black and brown. The Center for American Progress created a list of the top ten startling facts about people of color (POC) and the criminal justice system including that while POC make up about 30% of the U.S. population they represent about 60% of the prison population.
In 1934, Federal Prison Industries, publicly traded under the name UNICOR, began a federal inmate worker program for private prisons ostensibly in an effort to reduce recidivism. This claim has not been substantiated by methodologically rigorous studies.
Today, many everyday products are manufactured in prisons, and a number of services are performed by inmates. Inmates manufacture furniture, law enforcement equipment, and license plates. Sprint and Verizon outsource telecommunications jobs to call centers in prisons. In 2013, Colorado Correctional Industries made $65 million in profit from its inmate-run fishery, vineyard, and goat farm.
Even with goat farming skills, how is recidivism not a possibility with so many legal restrictions on the livelihoods of ex-offenders? Requiring convicted felons to “check the box” for almost all job applications severely limits their job prospects. Furthermore, it denies them a number of licenses for specialized professions and makes them ineligible for public benefits such as food stamps and public housing.
In some cases, the labor of inmates is eerily reminiscent of centuries old plantations. Prison profiteers, who have a vested interest in prison expansion, are keenly aware of the multitude of advantages for companies and the government to outsource labor to prisons- even when it negatively impacts other small businesses who can’t compete with wages of $0.23 to $1.15 per hour.
Human trafficking organizations must reallocate some of their policy efforts, resources, and awareness campaigns to forced labor within U.S. penitentiaries.
Along with anti-trafficking movements, the general public also has the responsibility to reimagine the goals of incarceration. Countries such as Sweden and Norway have set a precedent of effective alternative prison systems.
The private companies that run these programs claim they reduce recidivism, though independent studies confirming this are lacking. The onerous legal restrictions placed on ex-offenders upon their release aren’t conducive to full reintegration- which can’t be mitigated by a forced labor in prison. U.S. penitentiaries need to incorporate actual rehabilitation programs in three main areas: education, mental health counseling, and drug abuse, as well as reintegration programs.
If society really wants to talk about prison reform, urgent attention must be redirected to the 13th Amendment as it is the defining piece of legislation allowing forced labor in the U.S. and its jurisdictions.
*The views and opinions expressed in this blog do not necessarily reflect the position of the HTC
Image via joedylehigh.
The Human Trafficking Center, housed in the University of Denver’s Josef Korbel School of International Studies, is the only two-year, graduate-level, professional-training degree in human trafficking in the United States. One way graduate students contribute to the study of human trafficking is by publishing research-based blogs. The HTC was founded in 2002 to apply sound research and reliable methodology to the field of human trafficking research and advocacy.
Founded in 1964, the Josef Korbel School of International Studies is one of the world’s leading schools for the study of international relations. The School offers degree programs in international affairs and is named in honor of its founder and first dean, Josef Korbel.
Print This Post