“Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall, exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction” [emphasis added] (“Thirteenth Amendment”).
Thus reads the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution. What is often overlooked in history classes and discussions on the abolition of slavery is that the Thirteenth Amendment does not forbid “involuntary servitude” in all cases. Forced, unpaid work is still legal in the United States. Technically prisoners, having been cleared by a doctor, can be made to work for no money. If they do not comply it is not uncommon for prisoners to be told they’re hurting their chance of getting parole or being moved to a lower-security facility. Some prisoners are even thrown in solitary confinement if they refuse to work.
While it is legal for inmates not to be paid this is really only the case in a few states, namely Alabama, Georgia, Texas, and South Carolina. On average, prisoners are paid about 63 cents an hour, less than a tenth of the national minimum wage (Sawyer). Since it’s legal for private companies to outsource their work to prisons, inmates’ jobs can range from cleaning the prison to manufacturing weapons and Victoria’s Secret products to staffing call centers (Brosnahan). In fact, prisons are a popular place for companies who want to manufacture their products in the United States, since the labour is so cheap. Some companies will even use the fact that their products are made in the US as a selling point, insinuating to their customers that, because of the labour laws in the US, the company does not exploit its workers.
Unfortunately, prisoners are not protected by all labour protection acts. Over the years there have been several cases of inmates attempting to sue their prison employers in order to obtain minimum wage, but there are loopholes in many labour laws as the relationship between prisoners and penitentiaries is not seen as primarily economic. Because of this prisoners are not classified as “employees,” meaning the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), which most importantly establishes the minimum wage, does not apply to them (Benns).
The argument for this unpaid labour is that it is part of the rehabilitative process. However the job markets that inmates are being prepared for mostly involve minimum-wage jobs with low chance of upward mobility. If this labour were really supposed to help rehabilitate prisoners, it would set them up for employment opportunities in an environment where they could develop their skills and make their way up the career ladder. Instead most of the jobs that prisoners are coerced into doing in prison involve manufacturing, an industry in which employees on the ground floor are rarely promoted. Setting up prisoners for these kinds of minimum wage jobs will often keep them in the same circles that brought them to prison in the first place, meaning it is much more likely for them to return to prison. Moreover, the rehabilitation argument would be more convincing if prisoners were not forced into work. Inmates are adults and as such they should be allowed to determine which programs they partake in. Some prisons offer classes so that inmates can gain useful knowledge on topics ranging from business to cooking, and yet it is never compulsory for inmates to attend.
Over the past five years in Canada, prisoners have gone on several strikes in an attempt to protest pay cuts in a wage system that hasn’t been updated since 1981. Prisoners are no longer able to send money home to their family, and they can’t afford what most would consider simple rights, such as telephone calls, sending letters, and private visits with family and friends. While unpaid work is illegal in every form in Canada, prisoners are making on average three dollars a day for a full day’s work. Like in the US, for-profit organizations in Canada can pay prison laborers for several types of services. These prisoners are often punished for refusing work or, again, told that if they refuse they are affecting their chances of parole or getting transferred to a lower-security institution (Brownell).
While some people may argue that convicted felons do not deserve the same rights as innocent citizens, surely the fact that slavery is not in fact illegal in all forms in the United States should give pause to all law-abiding civilians. In countries like the US and Canada where it is common for citizens to protest well-known brands that outsource their manufacturing to countries with less-strict labour laws, the populous should understand that this sort of maltreatment of workers is happening in our own countries and cities, it’s happening in our prisons.
"Thirteenth Amendment." Current Events, a Weekly Reader publication, 23 Apr. 2007, p. S2. General OneFile, http://link.galegroup.com/apps/doc/A162920963/ITOF?u=nysl_me_lrs_eihs&sid=ITOF&xid=7d22a41f. Accessed 17 Mar. 2018.
Benns, Whitney. “American Slavery, Reinvented.” The Atlantic, Atlantic Media Company, 21 Sept. 2015, www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2015/09/prison-labor-in-america/406177/.
Brosnahan, Maureen. “Federal Inmates Go on Strike to Protest Pay Cuts.” CBCnews, CBC/Radio Canada, 2 Oct. 2013, www.cbc.ca/news/federal-inmates-go-on-strike-to-protest-pay-cuts-1.1875491.
Brownell, Claire. “Prisoners Making $1.95 a Day Want a Raise. Taxpayers Want a Break.” Financial Post, 1 Sept. 2017, business.financialpost.com/news/court-challenge-to-inmate-pay-places-prison-labour-program-in-the-crosshairs.
Sawyer, Wendy. “How Much Do Incarcerated People Earn in Each State?” Prison Policy Initiative, 10 Apr. 2017, www.prisonpolicy.org/blog/2017/04/10/wages/.