21st-Century Slaves: How Corporations Exploit Prison Labor
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"If they refuse to work, they are moved to disciplinary housing and lose canteen privileges" along with "good time credit that reduces their sentences,” reports Chris Levister. To top it off, Abe Louise Young reports in The Nation that the federal government subsidizes the use of inmate labor by private companies through lucrative tax write-offs. Under the Work Opportunity Tax Credit (WOTC), private-sector employers receive a tax credit of $2,400 for every work release inmate they employ as a reward for hiring “risky target groups” and they can "earn back up to 40 percent of the wages they pay annually to target group workers."
Study after study demonstrates the wastefulness of America's prison-industrial complex, in both taxpayer dollars and innocent lives, yet rolling back imprisonment rates is proving to be more challenging than ever. Meanwhile, the use of private prisons and now privately contracted inmate labor has created a system that does not exactly incentivize leaner sentencing.
The disturbing implications of such a system mean that skyrocketing imprisonment for the possession of miniscule amounts of marijuana and the the expansion of severe mandatory sentencing laws regardless of the conviction, are policies that have the potential to increase corporate profits. As are the“three strikes laws” that require courts to hand down mandatory and extended sentences to people who have been convicted of felonies on three or more separate occasions. People have literally been sentenced to life for minor crimes like shoplifting .
The Reinvention of Slavery
The exploitation of prison labor is by no means a new phenomenon. Jaron Browne, an organizer with People Organized to Win Employment Rights (POWER), maps out how the exploitation of prison labor in America is rooted in slavery . The abolition of slavery dealt a devastating economic blow to the South following the loss of free labor after the Civil War. So in the late 19th century, "an extensive prison system was created in the South in order to maintain the racial and economic relationship of slavery," a mechanism responsible for re-enslaving black workers. Browne describes Louisiana’s famous Angola Prison to illustrate the intentional transformation from slave to inmate:
“In 1880, this 8000-acre family plantation was purchased by the state of Louisiana and converted into a prison. Slave quarters became cell units. Now expanded to 18,000 acres, the Angola plantation is tilled by prisoners working the land—a chilling picture of modern day chattel slavery.”
The abolition of slavery quickly gave rise to the Black Codes and Convict Leasing, which together worked wonders at perpetuating African American servitude by exploiting a loophole in the 13th Amendment to the US Constitution, which reads:
“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.”
The Black Codes were a set of laws that "criminalized legal activity for African Americans" and provided a pretext for the arrest and mass imprisonment of newly freed blacks, which caused the rate of African Americans prisoners to “ surpass whites for the first time ”, according to Randall G. Sheldon in the Black Commentator. Convict leasing involved leasing out prisoners to private companies that paid the state a certain fee in return. Convicts worked for the companies during the day outside the prison and returned to their cells at night. The system provided revenue for the state and profits for plantation owners and wasn’t abolished until the 1930s.
Unfortunately, convict leasing was quickly replaced with equally despicable state-run chain gangs. Once again, stories of vicious abuse created enough public anger to abolish chain gangs by the 1950s. Nevertheless, the systems of prisoner exploitation never actually disappeared.