A comprehensive two-year investigation by The Associated Press unravels intricate, invisible webs connecting some of the world’s largest food companies to forced prison labor in the U.S.. This shadowy workforce, often excluded from basic labor protections, produces goods that end up on the shelves of almost every American kitchen, from breakfast cereals to fast-food meats.
One of America’s most vulnerable workforces
Incarcerated workers, facing the threat of parole denial or even solitary confinement if they resist, form one of America’s most vulnerable workforces.
Robin Mcdowell and Margie Mason for the Associated Press report,
They also are often excluded from protections guaranteed to almost all other full-time workers, even when they are seriously injured or killed on the job.
The goods these prisoners produce wind up in the supply chains of a dizzying array of products found in most American kitchens, from Frosted Flakes cereal and Ball Park hot dogs to Gold Medal flour, Coca-Cola and Riceland rice. They are on the shelves of virtually every supermarket in the country, including Kroger, Target, Aldi and Whole Foods. And some goods are exported, including to countries that have had products blocked from entering the U.S. for using forced or prison labor.
Many of the companies buying directly from prisons are violating their own policies against the use of such labor. But it’s completely legal, dating back largely to the need for labor to help rebuild the South’s shattered economy after the Civil War. Enshrined in the Constitution by the 13th Amendment, slavery and involuntary servitude are banned – except as punishment for a crime.
Prison slavery: technically not an employee
Frank Dwayne Ellington lost his life while working when his arm got caught in the machine he was cleaning in a poultry-processing plant. The company he was working for, Koch Foods, is one of the largest poultry processing companies in the U.S. with profits in the billions. Despite being able to, Koch Foods initially resisted compensating Ellington’s family for their loss, arguing that he wasn’t technically an employee.
Technically, they’re right. Under the 13th Amendment, slavery and involuntary servitude are the punishment for those convicted of a crime. Despite claims by various prison and law enforcement officials that work is rehabilitative or mutually beneficial, this Punishment Clause in the 13th Amendment allows for a system in which incarcerated workers are not afforded the same fundamental rights as non-incarcerated workers including a safe or even non-lethal work environment.
It’s time to amend the 13th Amendment
“There is nothing innovative or interesting about this system of forced labor as punishment for what in so many instances is an issue of poverty or substance abuse,” notes Cliff Johnson, from the MacArthur Justice Center at the University of Mississippi. We couldn’t agree more. Prison slavery has no part in 2024 society.
Together with partners, our community is demanding all states and the federal government to explicitly outlaw slavery and involuntary servitude as punishment for a crime in the U.S. and state constitutions.
We know you agree slavery belongs in the past. Let’s make sure the U.S. hears our collective call – add your voice to the campaign today.