A 50-year-long struggle to end U.S. prison slavery

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Forced LaborPrison slavery

The 13th amendment of the U.S. constitution was drafted with a view to ending slavery – except it didn’t. It includes a loophole that has fueled forced prison labor for centuries. The amendment states, “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…” In other words, slavery or involuntary servitude is acceptable when it comes to the incarcerated.

The U.S. has the highest incarceration rate in the world. Given that the incarcerated can be forced to work, they are often paid nothing at all or mere pennies for their work, leaving them with almost no savings to help them re-enter society upon release. Companies looking for cheap or free labor and unconcerned about workers’ rights contract prisons for access to guaranteed laborers they can take advantage of to earn high profits.

Advocates both inside and outside the prison system have protested this loophole for decades.  Gothamist remembers the uprising of inmates at the Attica Correctional Facility in New York in 1971.

Gothamist reports,

In September 1971, L.D. Barkley stood before a group of reporters inside the Attica Correctional Facility. The 21-year-old and his fellow prisoners had recently taken over the maximum security facility, and they wanted the public to hear their demands. “We are men! We are not beasts,” his voice rang out, “And we do not intend to be driven or beaten as such.”

“We want to apply the New York state minimum wage law to all state institutions. We want a stop to slave labor here,” he said.

Days later, Barkley was one of the 29 prisoners and 10 hostages killed when state police and correction officers fired 2,000 rounds as they stormed back into the facility.

After the uprising and the bloodshed that ended it, state officials agreed to several of the inmates’ initial 27 requested reforms. Authorities ultimately recognized Muslim prisoners’ right to recieve religious texts and eat meals free of pork, and gave prisoners more frequent access to showers.

Unfortunately, an end to forced labor was not granted and, as our community knows, continues to this day. Gothamist spoke to the founder and Executive Director of one of Freedom United’s partner organizations, Worth Rises, about our nationwide campaign to cut the exception out of the constitution.

“In 2021, we have to be able to say, ‘No slavery, no exceptions,’” she said.

We can’t wait another fifty years. Add your voice to the Freedom United campaign calling for an end to prison slavery.

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

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Gordon Barbour
1 month ago

The same thing exists here in Trinidad and Tobago, a magistrate or a judge will sentence a person to a number of Months or Years in prison with hard Labour. I asked the same question “If Slavery has been Abolished how can they sentence some literally in Slavery for that period?” No one answered.