A county judge cracks their gavel on the bench. A San Antonio family grills hot dogs on a metal grill. Students board a school bus. All of these products were likely made by forced, unpaid prison labor in Texas according to data obtained through the Public Information Act.
Writing in the San Antonio Express News, Chris Tomlinson explains that while Americans have become more aware of forced labor in China, the problem is also one that occurs at home.
The 13th Amendment effectively codified unpaid coerced labor in the US Constitution through the Exception Clause, banning slavery “except as a punishment for crime.” The United States incarcerates 1.8 million people — more than any other country in the world — and Texas has brought in millions from their labor.
Texas has the largest state prison population in the country, and state law requires the Texas Department of Criminal Justice to use their labor as much as possible without pay.
Texas Correctional Industries, established by the Legislature in 1963, “manufactures goods and provides services for sale, on a for-profit basis, to city, county, state and federal agencies, public schools, public and private institutions of higher education, public hospitals and political subdivisions.”
Prison labor makes office furniture for state agencies, including the fancy leather chairs provided to lawmakers in the House and Senate chambers. Prisoners make the razor wire strung over the fences around jails and prisons. They even grow and harvest cotton to make prison uniforms.
“All inmates who are able are assigned a job and are required to work,” Texas Department of Criminal Justice spokesman Jeremy Desel said in an email exchange. “If inmates refuse to work, they can lose privileges like commissary, recreation and in the worst-case scenarios good time credits related to work.”
Texas Correctional Industries brings in more than $70 million a year for the prison system, and private companies can outsource work to prisons. Under the Prison Industry Enhancement Certification Program, incarcerated people can work for private firms and earn a wage, but there’s a catch: the state deducts the bulk of the earned income for taxes, room and board, family support, restitution and a crime victims’ fund.
In turn, contracts using prison labor can outbid those from other companies, coming in as a cheaper option for officials. Yet some local governments are waking up to the injustice, choosing morals over budgets.
Last year, Houston City Council members Abbie Kamin and Carolyn Evans-Shabazz objected to a $4.2 million contract for unpaid prisoners to replace tires on the city’s commercial trucks and tractor trailers. Mayor Sylvester Turner asked for new bids, resulting in Southern Tire Mart agreeing to do the job for $4.6 million.
As Tomlinson concludes, “The 13th Amendment may allow prisons to turn people into slaves, but that doesn’t mean they should . . . Earning money reinforces the dignity of work; treating someone like a slave only breeds resentment.”
Freedom United is urgently calling on the U.S. to outlaw slavery as punishment for a crime under the 13th Amendment. Join the campaign today.