End slavery in the U.S. prison and detention industry - FreedomUnited.org

End slavery in the U.S. prison and detention industry

End US forced prison labor

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Forced labor should not be legal in the United States. But it is, and it’s rife in the U.S. prison and immigration detention industry, with public and private actors to blame. 

Under the 13th Amendment, involuntary servitude remains legal as punishment for a crime. However, even those who are not convicted of crimes – including immigrant detainees – have allegedly been subjected to forced labor behind bars. 

The U.S. public and private prison and immigration detention industry has long been built to exploit profit from those who are incarcerated whoin some cases are forced to work under threat of punishment or penalty, in contravention with international standards.1

We won’t let this stand unchallenged which is why we are calling for major reforms of the prison industry. We are not arguing against prison labor, we are refuting the argument that forced labor is doing good. We demand an end to schemes and legal loopholes that allow local governments and contractors to benefit from the exploitation of those who are incarcerated and detainees in forced labor.

One of the core problems with contracting comes in the form of the Prison Industry Enhancement Certification Program (PIECP), where private companies who have contracts with government-run prisons can get away deducting up to 80% of their detainees’ wagesmeaning they work for almost no pay, creating an economic incentive for this system. 2

Fair pay, equivalent to what would be earned on the outside, is not only an indicator that labor is free, but the savings made are crucial for detainees’ recovery on release, as well as enabling them to afford basic necessities from the commissary. 

This is at worst an economic model that perpetuates slavery in the United States. The 13th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which abolished slavery, in fact allows it to be used as a method of punishment for crime. On dismantling the historical system of slavery, this created space for the continued exploitation of African Americans and now other discriminated groups, largely from poorer migrant communities, to be essentially trafficked into the prison and detention system for labor exploitation under the control of private companies.3 

We must stop this economic slavery model!   

Case in point is the alleged appalling treatment at the Santa Rita Jail in Dublin, California, those whom were incarcerated are suing Alameda County, Sheriff Gregory Ahern, and multinational food and facility services company Aramark, in federal court for forced labor. 4   

The victims say they are subjected to forced labor because the sheriff’s deputies threatened them with solitary confinement or longer sentences if they refused to work.   

What’s more, they allege that Aramark “receives an economic windfall as a result of the uncompensated labor of prisoners.” 

“Santa Rita and therefore the county are stealing the wages that have been earned as a result of the work of the prisoners,” argues Dan Siegel, one of the lawyers representing the plaintiffs. “We speculate that it’s at least millions.” 

The Santa Rita Jail case isn’t an anomaly; it’s part of a broader system of injustice against those who are incarcerated and immigrant detainees across the United States.  

Several lawsuits have been brought against private immigration detention centers over claims of human trafficking, and there is promising news. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit recently found that the Trafficking Victims Protection Act applies to the Stewart Detention Center in Georgia – the site where immigrant detainees allege they were subjected to forced labor.5 

According to the complaint, victims suffered “serious harm, including the deprivation of privacy and safety in open living quarters, referral for criminal prosecution, and, ultimately, the sensory and psychological deprivation of their humanity resulting from solitary confinementUnder these circumstances, no labor is voluntary—it is forced. 

We are thus asking all local governments and private companies to comply with the Trafficking Victims Protection Act and stop profiteering from forced labor and slavery in public and private prisons. Even when convicted, incarcerated people are protected from slavery-like practices under international law and should be paid fairly for voluntary work performed. 

Join our call and help send a strong signal to U.S. public and private prisons that they can’t get away with forced labor behind bars. 

Have questions about the link between prison labor and modern slavery? Learn more about it here.

  • October 29, 2021: A class-action lawsuit brought against private prison operator Geo Group in 2017 concluded this week as a federal jury decided GEO Group must pay detainees Washington’s state minimum wage of $13.69 per hour for work they carry out at Northwest ICE Processing Center in Tacoma, Washington. Read more here.

  • February 9, 2021: U.S. District Court of the Northern District of California issued an order on claims against Alameda County and Aramark. Judge Jon Tigar ruled that the the pre-trial and immigrant detainee plaintiffs have standing to proceed with claims under the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA), the 13th Amendment, and California labor laws pertaining to forced labor, minimum wage, and overtime. Read the full order here.

  • February 1, 2021: Alongside Be Better Belmont, we are urging and reiterating our call to action asking Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU) to divest from prison slavery and cut their contract with Aramark. Learn more here.

  • January 26, 2021:  President Biden signed an Executive Order calling on the Department of Justice to no longer renew contracts with privately operated criminal detention facilities. Read the full order here 

Chip in and help end modern slavery once and for all.


Freedom United is interested in hearing from our community and welcomes relevant, informed comments, advice, and insights that advance the conversation around our campaigns and advocacy. We value inclusivity and respect within our community. To be approved, your comments should be civil.

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4 years ago

FIFA is an accomplice of Qatar. They could put pressure on them to guarantee fair pay and treatment. But of course the FIFA officials only think of their own pockets and egos. Disgusting.

4 years ago

Iam shocked that even many advanced and free nations have not made a strict law to prevent unauthorized organ harvesting from innocent people. Does it require a campaign from human rights organisations to bring this law? Pathetic how low humans can sink for money

4 years ago

FIFA should put pressure on Qatar. But the officials only think of their pockets and egos. Disgusting !!!

4 years ago

It’s hard to believe that this stuff is ongoing and the international community did nothing to stop it. And in the first place, Eritreans woke up!! WE are responsible if the brutal dictator is still alive up to this day. Our people are suffering, force slavery continued, …..what we are waiting? It’s time to stand up as one.

Susan Sayre
Susan Sayre
3 years ago

It looks like just about all major food brands use prison labor. It’s great to put pressure on colleges to not use Amarak, but, in addition, campus dining facilities would have to carefully examine all of their food sources in order to be truly slavery-free.

End slavery in the U.S. prison and detention industry


Help us reach 30,000

We are calling on all public and private prisons, immigration detention centers, and associated contractors: 

For too long the United States public and private industry has gotten away with exploiting labor from incarcerated people and immigrant detainees, often earning massive profits in the process, at worst under threat of penalty or punishment. We won’t accept this system of exploitation that in some cases is tantamount to modern slavery. 

We are calling on all sectors to divest and cut contracts with abusive facilities and reform contracting so that incarcerated people and immigrant detainees are paid fair wages. 

This includes: 

  • Demanding that all local governments and private companies comply with the Trafficking Victims Protection Act and stop profiteering from forced labor and slavery in public and private prisons. 
  • Challenging the 80% dedication rate from the PIECP program so that incarcerated people and detainees receive fair wages for all voluntary work. 
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