Johnny Perez was made to work under threat of punishment, sewing underwear, pillowcases and sheets. He earned between $0.17 and $0.36 per hour for his labor.
Johnny was one of the hundreds of thousands of incarcerated people who are forced to work in the U.S. as a result of a so-called “slavery loophole” created by the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
But the movement to close this loophole is picking up pace, with a federal-level bill gaining support and five states putting the exception clause in their state constitutions to a vote in November.
How forced prison labor is a form of modern slavery
“Slavery by any name is wrong,” says Perez, stating an opinion which should not be controversial. And yet, it is currently legal to force people to work in most U.S. states without even providing a living income in return.
Prison labor can be considered forced labor because prisons leverage punishments to coerce people into working in conditions that simply would not be accepted outside. The Guardian explains:
Refusing a work assignment can also have adverse consequences, [Perez] said, ranging from being placed in solitary confinement to having any work issues placed on your record which affects parole and status within a prison that determines what privileges you receive. Workers in prison do not get any paid time off and are often forced to work even when sick unless an infirmary affirms they are not able to work.
A common myth is that prisons provide all basic necessities for incarcerated people. However, as Perez explain, they often have to buy their own toiletries, clothing items, stationary and supplementary food items. For many, it is impossible to cover these costs on prison wages.
The slavery loophole
Perez is now campaigning as part of a national movement to close the slavery loophole that makes it legal to coerce people into working under conditions that would be illegal outside of prison walls.
The loophole refers to the exception clause in the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution that states that slavery and involuntary servitude remain legal as punishment for a crime. Noting the link with historical slavery, forced prison labor disproportionately affects Black, brown and indigenous people today.
As a result of the exception clause, around 800,000 people are being forced to work in state and federal prisons, according to a 2022 report published by the American Civil Liberties Union. Their labor is generating a conservative estimate of $11bn in goods and services each year while they only earn around $0.13 – $0.52 per hour on average.
Amending the constitution
A campaign to amend the constitution at a federal level is under way. U.S. representative Nikema Williams and senator Jeff Merkley are calling for an end to the exception clause. The bill currently has 175 co-sponsors in the House.
The movement is also pushing forward at a state level, with five states putting the removal of the exception clause from their state constitutions to a public vote. Alabama, Louisiana, Oregon, Tennessee and Vermont will vote on the issue in November.
Together with partners, the Freedom United community is demanding that all states and the federal government explicitly outlaw slavery and involuntary servitude as punishment for a crime.