Penal labor in the United States

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Penal labor in the United States, a form of slavery or involuntary servitude, is explicitly allowed by the 13th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. This form of legal slavery is only allowed when used as punishment for committing a crime. The 13th Amendment states that "neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for a crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction."[1][2] Unconvicted detainees awaiting trial cannot be forced to participate in forced rehabilitative labor programs in prison as it violates the Thirteenth Amendment. The Reconstruction Era of 1865 began as the government fashioned laws to help stabilize the economy, society, and government of the South. [3] From the time period of 1866 through 1872, Alabama, Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas, Georgia, Mississippi, Florida, Tennessee, and South Carolina begin to lease out convicts for labor. [3] As these states released larger and larger blocks of prisoners into the convict lease system to work for private companies, prison labor worked to reinforce a racial social order in the South. [4]

The role of penal labor in the United States is mainly designed to benefit the states and their economies through the generation of revenue and power to uphold a market order.[5]

Increases in prison labor participation began in 1979 with the formation of the Prison Industry Enhancement Certification Program. The Prison Industry Enhancement Certification Program (PIECP) is a federal program that was initiated along with the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and the Prison-Industries Act in 1979.[6] This program legalized the transportation of prison-made goods across state lines and allows prison inmates to earn market wages in private sector jobs that can go towards tax deductions, victim compensation, family support, and room and board. The PIECP, ALEC, and Prison-Industries Act were created with the goal of motivating state and local governments to create employment opportunities that mimic private sector work, generate services that allow offenders to contribute to society, offset the cost of their incarceration, reduce inmate idleness, cultivate job skills, and improve the success rates of transition back into the community after release.[7] Before these programs, prison labor for the private sector had been outlawed for decades to avoid competition. The introduction of prison labor in the private sector, the implementation of PIECP, ALEC, and Prison-Industries Act in state prisons all contributed a substantial role in cultivating the prison-industrial complex. Between the years 1980 through 1994, prison industry profits jumped substantially from $392 million to $1.31 billion.

In more recent years, prison labor continues to be used by corporations, especially in the private prison sector. Corporations, especially those in the technology and food industries, contract prison labor, as it is legal and often completely encouraged by government legislature. [8] The Work Opportunity Tax Credit (WOTC) serves as a federal tax credit that grants employers $2,400 for every work-release employed inmate. [9]"Prison in-sourcing" has increasingly grown in popularity as the cheaper alternative to outsourcing with a wide variety of companies such as Whole Foods, McDonald's, Target, IBM, Texas Instruments, Boeing, Nordstrom, Intel, Wal-Mart, Victoria's Secret, Aramark, AT&T, BP, Starbucks, Microsoft, Nike, Honda, Macy's and Sprint and many more actively participating in prison in-sourcing throughout the 1990s and 2000s.[10]

The portrayal of prison-building/expansion as a means of creating employment opportunities through the utilization of inmate labor are particularly harmful elements of the prison-industrial complex in the United States as they boast clear economic benefits at the expense of the incarcerated populace. Prison labor also glorifies the prioritization of personal financial gain over ensuring one's debt to society is adequately paid or actual rehabilitation process for criminals. [11]

Penal labor is also sometimes used as a punishment in the U.S. military.[12]



The current state of prison labor in the United States has distinct roots in slavery traditions. With the passage of the 13th amendment in 1865, slavery was deemed unconstitutional with the exception as for a punishment for a crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.[13] This caveat allowed those incarcerated to be forced to work without constitutional rights granted to them. The forced prison labor was then used to reinforce a system of racial control for years past. Southern states would criminalize minor crimes through "black codes" which drove up the arrest rate of freedmen and forced them to participate in penal labor when they could not afford the fines. During the Reconstruction era in order to boost the Southern economy, the institutionalization of convict leasing began to take effect. [14]

Convict lease[edit]

Floridian convicts leased to harvest timber in the mid-1910s.

The "convict lease" system became popular throughout the American South following the American Civil War and into the 20th century. Since the impoverished state governments could not afford penitentiaries, they leased out prisoners to work at private firms. According to Douglas A. Blackmon, because of the revenue received by local governments, they had incentives to arrest blacks; tens of thousands of African Americans were arbitrarily arrested and leased to coal mines, lumber camps, brickyards, railroads, quarries, and farm plantations.[15] In Florida, convicts were often sent to work in lumber camps and turpentine factories.[16] The state governments maximized profits by putting the responsibility on the lessee to provide food, clothing, shelter, and medical care for the prisoners, with little oversight. This resulted in extremely poor conditions, numerous deaths, and perhaps the most inhumane system of labor in the United States.[17] Reformers abolished convict leasing in the 20th-century Progressive Era, stopping the system in Florida in 1919. The last state to abolish the practice was Alabama in 1927. [18]

Convict leasing was one of the major contributors to the disenfranchisement of blacks across the South through the 20th century and worked to exclude African-Americans from the political system alongside a rising wave of lynching of blacks by white mobs. [19] American criminologist Thorsten Sellin asserts that the sole aim of convict leasing “was financial profit to the lessees who exploited the labor of the prisoners to the fullest, and to the government which sold the convicts to the lessees.” [20] Although the leasing system came to a close, convict labor never ceased and continues today in various forms. [20]

Mississippi for-profit prison labor[edit]

Forced labor exists in many prisons. In Mississippi, Parchman Farm operated as a for-profit plantation, which yielded revenues for the state from its earliest years. Many prisoners were used to clear the dense growth in the Mississippi bottomland, and then to cultivate the land for agriculture. By the mid-20th century, it had 21,000 acres (8,498 ha) under cultivation. In the late 20th century, prison conditions were investigated under civil rights laws, when abuses of prisoners and harsh working conditions were exposed. These revelations during the 1970s led the state to abandon the for-profit aspect of its forced labor from convicts and planned to hire a professional penologist to head the prison. A state commission recommended reducing the size of acreage, to grow only what is needed for the prison.[21]

Hired convict labor[edit]

The earliest known law permitting convicts to be paid for their labor traces back to an act passed by New York governor John Jay in 1796.[22][23] More explicit legislation suggesting that "it may be useful to allow [prisoners] a reasonable portion of the fruits of their labor" was later enacted in 1817 under Daniel D. Tompkins, only to be repealed the following year.[24][25]

In 1924, the U.S. Secretary of Commerce, Herbert Hoover, held a conference on the “ruinous and unfair competition between prison-made products and free industry and labor” (70 Cong. Rec. S656 (1928)).[26] The eventual legislative response to the committee’s report led to federal laws regulating the manufacture, sale and distribution of prison-made products. Congress enacted the Hawes-Cooper Act in 1929, the Ashurst-Sumners Act in 1935 (now known as 18 U.S.C. § 1761(a)), and the Walsh-Healey Act in 1936.[26] Walsh controlled the production of prison-made goods while Ashurst prohibited the distribution of such products in interstate transportation or commerce.[26] Both statutes authorized federal criminal prosecutions for violations of state laws enacted pursuant to the Hawes-Cooper Act.[26] Private companies got involved again in 1979, when Congress passed a law establishing the Prison Industry Enhancement Certification Program which allows employment opportunities for prisoners in some circumstances.[27] PIECP relaxed the restrictions imposed under the Ashurst-Sumners and Walsh-Healey Acts, and allowed for the manufacture, sale and distribution of prisoner-made products across state lines.[26] However, PIECP limited participation in the program to 38 jurisdictions (later increased to 50), and required each to apply to the U.S. Department of Justice for certification.[26]

According to the International Labor Organization, in 2000-2011 wages in American prisons ranged between $0.23 and $1.15 an hour. In California, prisoners earn between $0.30 and $0.95 an hour before deductions.[28]

Over the years, the courts have held that inmates may be required to work and are not protected by the constitutional prohibition against involuntary servitude.[29] They have also consistently held that inmates have no constitutional right to compensation and that inmates are paid by the "grace of the state.”[29] Under the Federal Bureau of Prisons, all able-bodied sentenced prisoners were required to work, except those who participated full-time in education or other treatment programs or who were considered security risks.[29] Correctional standards promulgated by the American Correctional Association provide that sentenced inmates, who are generally housed in maximum, medium, or minimum security prisons, be required to work and be paid for that work.[29] Some states require, as with Arizona, all able-bodied inmates to work.[30]

Inmates have reported that some private companies, such as Martori Farms, do not check for medical background or age when pulling women for jobs.[27]

Free Alabama Movement[edit]

Three prisoners — Melvin Ray, James Pleasant and Robert Earl Council — who led work stoppages in Alabama prisons in January 2014 as part of the Free Alabama Movement have been in solitary confinement since the start of the labor strike. Protests took place in three Alabama prisons, and the movement has smuggled out videos and pictures of abusive conditions, and authorities say the men will remain in solitary confinement indefinitely. The prisoners’ work stoppages and refusal to cooperate with authorities in Alabama are modeled on actions that took place in the Georgia prison system in December 2010. The strike leaders argue that refusing to work is a tactic that would force prison authorities to hire compensated labor or to induce the prisoners to return to their jobs by paying a fair wage. Prisoners appear to be currently organizing in Arizona, California, Florida, Illinois, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Mississippi, Texas, Virginia and Washington.[31]

Council, one of the founders of the Free Alabama Movement, said "We will not work for free anymore. All the work in prisons, from cleaning to cutting grass to working in the kitchen, is done by inmate labor. [Almost no prisoner] in Alabama is paid. Without us the prisons, which are slave empires, cannot function. Prisons, at the same time, charge us a variety of fees, such as for our identification cards or wrist bracelets, and [impose] numerous fines, especially for possession of contraband. They charge us high phone and commissary prices. Prisons each year are taking larger and larger sums of money from the inmates and their families. The state gets from us millions of dollars in free labor and then imposes fees and fines. You have [prisoners] that work in kitchens 12 to 15 hours a day and have done this for years and have never been paid.”[31]

Ray said “We do not believe in the political process ... We are not looking to politicians to submit reform bills. We aren’t giving more money to lawyers. We don’t believe in the courts. We will rely only on protests inside and outside of prisons and on targeting the corporations that exploit prison labor and finance the school-to-prison pipeline. We have focused our first boycott on McDonald’s. McDonald’s uses prisoners to process beef for patties and package bread, milk, chicken products. We have called for a national Stop Campaign against McDonald’s. We have identified this corporation to expose all the others. There are too many corporations exploiting prison labor to try and take them all on at once.”[31]

Governmental prison workforce authorities[edit]

Federal Prison Industries (UNICOR or FPI) is a wholly owned United States government corporation created in 1934 that uses penal labor from the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) to produce goods and services. FPI is restricted to selling its products and services to federal government agencies,[32][33] with some recent exceptions.

California Prison Industry Authority is an entity within the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) that develops and operates industrial, agricultural, and service enterprises using penal labor.[citation needed]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Tsesis, The Thirteenth Amendment and American Freedom (2004), pp. 17 & 34. "It rendered all clauses directly dealing with slavery null and altered the meaning of other clauses that had originally been designed to protect the institution of slavery."
  2. ^ "The Thirteenth Amendment", Primary Documents in American History, Library of Congress. Retrieved Feb 15, 2007
  3. ^ a b "State-Imposed Forced Labor: History of Prison Labor in the U.S. - End Slavery Now". Retrieved 2018-03-04. 
  4. ^ "Slaves of the state: American prison labour past and present". openDemocracy. 2015-04-22. Retrieved 2018-03-04. 
  5. ^ "Slaves of the state: American prison labour past and present". openDemocracy. 2015-04-22. Retrieved 2018-03-04. 
  6. ^ Elk, Mike; Sloan, Bob (2011-08-01). "The Hidden History of ALEC and Prison Labor". The Nation. ISSN 0027-8378. Retrieved 2018-03-04. 
  7. ^ Anthum. "Prison Industry Enhancement Certificate Program (PIECP) — What Works in Reentry Clearinghouse". Retrieved 2018-03-04. 
  8. ^ "These 5 Everyday Companies Are Profiting from the Prison-Industrial Complex". Groundswell. Retrieved 2018-03-04. 
  9. ^ "Work Opportunity Tax Credit". Retrieved 2018-03-04. 
  10. ^ ""The Insourcing of Prison Labor": Seven US Corporate Household Names Use Prison Labor to Produce their Goods | Global Research - Centre for Research on Globalization". 2015-12-01. Archived from the original on 2015-12-01. Retrieved 2018-03-04. 
  11. ^ "Jailing Americans for Profit: The Rise of the Prison Industrial Complex". Retrieved 2018-03-05. 
  12. ^ "Military Headlines". 2013-09-02. Retrieved 2013-09-06. 
  13. ^ "U.S. Prison Labor and the Legacy of American Slavery". Center On Human Rights Education. 2017-02-13. Retrieved 2018-03-05. 
  14. ^ Dargis, Manohla (2016-09-29). "Review: '13TH,' the Journey From Shackles to Prison Bars". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2018-03-05. 
  15. ^ Douglas A. Blackmon, Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black People in America from the Civil War to World War II (2008)
  16. ^ "Convicts Leased to Harvest Timber". World Digital Library. 1915. Retrieved 2013-07-28. 
  17. ^ John M. Brackett, "Cutting Costs by Cutting Lives: Prisoner Health and the Abolishment of Florida's Convict-Lease System." Southern Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal of the South, 2007, Vol. 14#2 pp 69-83
  18. ^ Fierce, Milfred (1994). Slavery Revisited: Blacks and the Southern Convict Lease System, 1865-1933. New York: New York: Africana Studies Research Center, Brooklyn College, City University of New York. pp. 192–193. ISBN 0-9643248-0-6. 
  19. ^ "U.S. Prison Labor and the Legacy of American Slavery". Center On Human Rights Education. 2017-02-13. Retrieved 2018-03-05. 
  20. ^ a b "The Black Commentator - Slavery in the Third Millennium, Part II - Issue 142". Retrieved 2018-03-05.  line feed character in |title= at position 74 (help)
  21. ^ "MISSISSIPPI URGED TO REVAMP PRISON; Panel Proposes Eliminating Farm-for-Profit System." The New York Times, 8 October 1972, p. 8, Retrieved on August 12, 2010.
  22. ^ Laws of the State of New York Comprising the Constitution and the Acts of Legislature since the Revolution from the First to the Twentieth Session, Inclusive. III. Thomas Greenleaf. 1797. pp. 291–299. if such credit shall exceed the debit side of the account, it shall be in the discretion of the inspectors when such convict is discharged to give him or her a part or the whole of such excess 
  23. ^ Lincoln, Charles Zebina (1906). The constitutional history of New York from the beginning of the colonial period to the year 1905 : showing the origin, development, and judicial construction of the constitution. pp. 246–252. 
  24. ^ State of New York Report of the Prison Survey Committee. J.B. Lyon. 1920. p. 119. This law, however, enacted under Governor Tompkins, was repealed the subsequent year. 
  25. ^ "Twenty-Third Annual Report of the Executive Committee of the Prison Association of New York for 1867". C. Van Benthuysen & Sons. January 29, 1868. p. 168-169. passed by the Legislature on the 15th April, 1817... 'And whereas, it is believed that a habit of industry is the best preventive of vice—to encourage which habit in the criminals in the state prison, whom the state are desirous of reforming, it may be useful to allow them a reasonable portion of the fruits of their labor, to be set apart and secured for them or their families..." 
  26. ^ a b c d e f Sloan, Bob (2010). "The Prison Industries Enhancement Certification Program: Why Everyone Should be Concerned". Prison Legal News. Retrieved May 14, 2015. 
  27. ^ a b Walshe, Sadhbh (2012). "How US prison labour pads corporate profits at taxpayers' expense". The Guardian. Retrieved May 14, 2015. 
  28. ^ "California governor seeks end to federal prison oversight"
  29. ^ a b c d "Perspectives on Paying the Federal Minimum Wage" (PDF). Prisoner Labor: 4. 1993. 
  30. ^ Constituent Services Informational Handbook (PDF). Corrections ADC. 2013. p. 16. Retrieved May 14, 2015. 
  31. ^ a b c Hedges, Chris (June 2015). America’s Slave Empire, Truthdig
  32. ^ McCollum, William (1996). Federal Prison Industries, Inc: Hearing Before the Committee on the Judiciary, U.S. House of Representatives. DIANE Publishing. p. 1. ISBN 978-0-7567-0060-7. 
  33. ^ Title 18 U.S. Code § 4122 Section A - Administration of Federal Prison Industries