The Exception Clause, also known as the Punishment Clause, of the U.S. Constitution’s 13th Amendment means that involuntary servitude and forced labor is still permissible as punishment for a crime.
The Punishment Clause
Today, thousands of incarcerated people are subjected to forced labor in prisons as a result of this legal exception. The Punishment Clause has been a blight on the U.S. for over 100 years, creating an economic incentive for increasing incarceration and exploiting incarcerated people as a source of cheap labor, predominantly affecting Black people and people of color.
Corporations exploiting prison labor
Under the Prison Industry Enhancement Certification Program (PIECP), corporations are empowered to exploit incarcerated people’s labor, generating billions of dollars. Corporations running PIECP worksites don’t have to operate within the same frameworks regulating and impacting labor in wider society. For example, employee absences and having to pay employee benefits aren’t a concern for corporations under PIECP using prison labor.
When describing the benefits of prison labor, the owner of Lockhart Technologies, a corporation that partnered with private prison operator GEO Group in the mid-90s to use prison labor to manufacture electronic and computer parts, put it bluntly: “Normally when you work in the free world, you have people call in sick, they have car problems, they have family problems. We don’t have that [in prison.]” Indeed, Lockhart saw such immense savings in personnel costs with prison labor that it shut down an outside plant.
An inherently exploitative system
The power imbalance that enables corporations to extract cheap labor from incarcerated people is indicative of an inherently exploitative system that creates the conditions for forced and coerced labor in detention to thrive.
It’s unknown just how many corporations and sectors are benefitting from forced prison labor which is why the Freedom United community is urgently calling on all states to explicitly outlaw slavery and involuntary servitude as punishment for a crime and for U.S. Congress to pass the Abolition Amendment to strike the Punishment Clause from the 13th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.