Alabama prison slavery case taken to court

Alabama’s ‘modern-day slavery’ prison work programs taken to court

  • Published on
    December 12, 2023
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  • Category:
    Anti-Slavery Activists, Prison slavery
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This week, current and former prisoners in Alabama filed a lawsuit in federal court arguing that the state’s prison labor system violates both the U.S. and Alabama constitutions by subjecting inmates to a “modern-day form of slavery,” The New York Times reports.

Suit aims to abolish illegal “labor trafficking scheme” 

Thousands of prisoners in many states across the U.S. work in “correctional industries” programs, producing clothing, license plates, and other goods. In Alabama prisoners working for state and local government agencies are paid $2 per day. The complaint filed by prisoners in Alabama points out that this is the same daily wage rate the state set for incarcerated labor in 1927.  

Lakiera Walker, one of the plaintiffs who served 15 years in the Alabama prison system said: 

“They can say, ‘Oh, we don’t have forced labor,’ but you have so many women on the inside right now who are afraid to speak out for the fear of retaliation.” 

According to Walker prisoners who refused to work ended up “in segregation” and that you did what you had to do to survive. Two labor groups, the Union of Southern Service Workers and the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union, are among the plaintiffs in the case. The Unions argue that the state’s parole system disproportionately traps Black prisoners in jobs working for little or no pay. Some are likening it to “Jim Crow” laws and saying it is a modern reincarnation of the convict-leasing system that replaced slavery after the Civil War. 

“One of the largest sanctioned human trafficking rings” 

The current and former prisoners say in their suit that the state is in violation of its constitution by forcing them to work “whether they want to or not.” Paying prisoners little to no money is made possible by an exception to the 13th Amendment’s prohibition on slavery, known as the “Exception Clause” or “Punishment Clause.” The economies of prison systems that leverage the “Punishment Clause” have become highly dependent on the forced labor of incarcerated workers to help them turn a profit. Having a captive labor source to maintain the profits means maintaining a large prison population, and Alabama consistently has a very low parole release rate, about 10%. In protest last year about the low parole release rate and inhumane living conditions, thousands of the state’s incarcerated workers went on strike.  

Strike organizer Diyawn Caldwell said,

“We have more people coming out in body bags than on parole, you have a living death sentence. There’s no way out.” 

Due to lack of Federal action, Human Trafficking Search reported that many states have recently voted to amend their state constitutions to ban prison labor. Over a year ago Alabama voters passed a ballot measure to amend their constitution to eliminate involuntary servitude with 76% voting in support. But to date, the state’s prison labor practices have remained in place with some saying they have even gotten worse. 

Punishment Clause a 100-year-old blight on freedom 

Over 100 years after the Emancipation Proclamation ended slavery in the United States, the legacy of racism and bondage of slavery continues in prison systems across the country. It is high time the country that calls itself the “land of the free” reckon with the injustices faced by incarcerated people due to the Punishment Clause. Freedom United is advocating for an end to this last stronghold of legalized slavery in the U.S. At both a Federal and State level, we are demanding all states and the federal government explicitly outlaw slavery and involuntary servitude as punishment for a crime. Join us in standing against slavery in ALL its forms wherever it is found. You can help us apply pressure on legislators to put an end to the Punishment Clause in the United States by writing directly to your legislature urging them to support the Abolishment Amendment here! No one should have to live in modern slavery, no matter the circumstances. Stand with us and help make the “land of the free” free from slavery for all.  

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