Editor’s Note: That’s right, we’re taking a look back (you know, hindsight) to see how we can best prepare (that’s the foresight; I think you get the idea) for the future, and in order to do that, we worked with professor Betsy Weiss (Communications professor at Tulane University) and her students to investigate the prison system and what we can and should be learning from its past and present.
It’s no shock that America’s prison system is deeply flawed, but to what extent do its shortcomings lie? Unlike in many of the world’s other developed countries (and despite the Eighth Amendment), prisoners in the United States are subjected to cruel, harsh conditions, deprived of adequate medical care, and used as a cheap labor source. Many prisons are overcrowded, understaffed, and extremely violent. With few exceptions, able bodied inmates are required to work for little to no pay. The liberating 13th Amendment even sets up the foundation of prison labor, outlawing slavery with the exception being “as a punishment for crime.” This loophole provides the constitutional grounds to the legality of prison labor, demoting prisoners to second class citizenship. In many states, convicted felons lose access to public social benefits, housing, and the right to vote — all of which would help them reintegrate back into society.
It’s important to note that America’s desire for cheap labor has been present throughout its history. The abolition of outright slavery failed to deter pro-slavery landowners in their efforts to keep the white hierarchy alive, particularly in the former Confederate states. Supporters of slavery did not truly have reasoning to consider black individuals genetically inferior, but it was this sentiment that “justified” the inhumane treatment the majority of slaves received. As a result of this desire to maintain a divide of power, a new system of inexpensive labor emerged in the South. Sharecropping allowed tenant farmers, many of whom were former slaves, to rent out land in exchange for a percentage of the crops harvested. Uncertain harvests and high interest rates kept sharecroppers indebted to their landowners. Black families remained trapped in a perpetual cycle of poverty that continues to persist today.
Although freed from the bondage of chattel slavery, many found themselves still exploited and bound to their new financial burdens. The practice of sharecropping had declined. However, people of color found themselves the target of yet another conflict. The late 20th century marked the official declaration of the war on drugs by the Nixon administration. Drug use continues to be a main perpetrator of mass incarceration, particularly for Black and Latino communities. According to the ACLU, America’s prison population has grown by a shocking 700% since 1970. Of those imprisoned, Black Americans are over five times more likely to be incarcerated compared to their white counterparts, making for a disproportionately black prison labor force. Lengthy mandatory minimums keep primarily nonviolent offenders imprisoned and locked away for decades, taking an emotional and especially financial toll on the prisoners and their families. In addition to court and other legal fees, convicts are required to pay for costly medical visits and other necessities. This financial debt incentivizes inmates to work, providing a cheap, readily available workforce for prison facilities and other private companies to extort.
Prisoners are not required to be paid for their work at all. Those who are paid earn on average as little as $0.12-$0.40 per hour. The states of Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, and Texas do not pay their prisoners for their labor. In the CNN film “American Jail,” Beth Schwartzapfel describes the injustices of prison labor. “If they (the prisoners) say no I’m not going to work — they can write you up for that, they can send you to solitary for that…” Inmates in these particular states are involuntary forced to work for free under the threat of disciplinary action. With the legal definition of slavery being “the state of being under the control of someone where the person is forced to work for another,” one could consider prison labor to be a form a slavery.
In the US, many cotton production prisons are simply renovated plantations. The Louisiana State Penitentiary, Angola, is named after the very plantation that the territory occupies. The documentary “Angola for Life: Rehabilitation and Reform Inside the Louisiana State Penitentiary” showcases acres of inmate grown crops guarded by armed officers on horseback. The nearly 80% African American makeup of Angola’s prison population makes for an uncomfortable comparison. In a follow up article to the documentary, the Atlantic writes, “To the untrained eye, the scenes from the documentary could have been shot 150 years ago. The imagery haunts, and the stench of slavery and racial oppression lingers through the 13 minutes of footage.”
Regardless of whether prison labor in America is comparable to slavery, the bottom line is that reform is necessary. The negative stigma around prisoners (and slaves in the past) has drastically affected and excused the way that they’re treated. Many justify the dehumanizing treatment of prisoners by generalizing them as dangerous criminals. The current system’s emphasis on punishment rather than reform and rehabilitation has led to over 50% of released convicts to be incarcerated again. In addition, lawmakers should work to make prison labor more equitable. Higher wages, safer working conditions, and the right of refusal are all absolutely necessary to create better working environments for prisoners.
If you are interested in learning more about the injustices of the prison system, feel free to check out these sources:
This piece is part of an on-going series produced in Professor Betsy Weiss’s class, “Punishment and Redemption in the Prison Industrial Complex,” which is taught at Tulane University.