Formerly incarcerated workers are leading a push for basic labor rights in prisons that could change everything.
Johnny Perez was arrested and incarcerated two days after his daughter was born, a heart-wrenching fact by itself. Perez wanted to be there for his daughter, but he was stuck at a state prison in Coxsackie, New York. He worked hard to save money, but his prison job sewing bed sheets started at 17 cents an hour. There were no sick days, no time off and refusal to work could result in solitary confinement, a form of torture. Perez wanted to support his daughter, but there wasn’t much left after paying for the expensive phone calls home and other hidden costs of a prison sentence.
Perez is now the prison program director at the National Religious Campaign Against Torture, a group committed to ending torture in U.S. policy, including forced labor and solitary confinement in jails and prisons. Labor trafficking is the use of force, fraud or coercion to induce people to work, and it is a serious crime often denounced by politicians. However, Perez says the definition of “labor trafficking” sounds just like what millions of incarcerated workers experience in state and federal prisons.
“With prison labor, you’re not just extracting from this individual worker, you are also extracting their capacity and ability to survive and support their families, and therefore, that family is deeper in poverty,” Perez said.
At some point, Perez learned how much money the prison bosses were making from the bed sheets he and other men stitched together. Corcraft, the brand name associated with New York prison industries, sold the sheets at retail prices to hotels and other customers. After making dozens and dozens of sheets per day at 17 cents an hour, Perez estimates that Corcraft likely made millions of dollars off his labor. He says prison did not just take his freedom and his body’s labor. It took his dignity and his humanity.
“The rich and wealthy benefit from the poor and weak, and we see it the most inside these places of incarceration under the guise of accountability,” Perez said. “When you dehumanize them so much, taking dignity and resources away from their family, that is the essence of racism at its core.”
Incarcerated workers who are paid earn typically between 14 cents and $1.41 an hour working for private corporations or the prisons where they are held, for an average of about 86 cents per day, depending on how the numbers are crunched. In five states with legacies of chattel slavery — Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Mississippi and Texas — it’s perfectly legal to force people to work for free under threat of further punishment, according to the End the Exception campaign.
The abolition network reports that prisoners who refuse to work “are often beaten, denied contact with family, put in solitary confinement, and even denied parole — punishments that date back to ante-bellum slavery.” It’s well-known that prisoners work virtually for free in Louisiana and other states as well, often filling positions at undesirable, low-wage jobs or running the prison facility itself. Perez and other advocates stress that they do not oppose prison labor; prisoners should be able to work to support themselves and their families. They oppose the rampant wage theft and coercive labor conditions.
“What are the drivers of crime? Poverty and hunger,” Perez said.
Like Perez, incarcerated workers are disproportionately people of color from lower-income communities, and advocates draw a direct line from labor conditions in jails and prisons today to the chain gangs and convict-leasing practices that replaced slavery in the South after the Civil War. Perez saw racial labor discrimination in prison, where Black men were forced to work less desirable jobs for lower pay than white men. While incarcerated workers are quietly transferred between facilities without notice — arguably another aspect of labor “trafficking” — advocates have settled on a different term: prison slavery.
Indeed, the 13th Amendment to the Constitution that abolished slavery and involuntary servitude in 1865 contains an infamous exception for anyone convicted of a crime that was replicated in state constitutions across the country. Seven states have amended their constitutions to end the exception, raising big questions about what ending prison slavery looks like in practice that courts will muddle over for years.
“There is only one population that can legally be enslaved, and that is people who are convicted of a crime, and that is the thing we find really reprehensible,” said Bianca Tylek, executive director of the racial justice group Worth Rises, in an interview. “That should not be an exception that ever existed, not to mention up to 2023.”
The Push to Abolish Prison Slavery in Congress
Last month, Senators Jeff Merkley (D-Oregon) and Cory Booker (D-New Jersey) and Rep. Nikema Williams (D-Georgia) reintroduced a joint resolution to amend the Constitution to remove the prison slavery exception from the 13th Amendment and finally abolish slavery and indentured servitude. The resolution, known as the Abolition Amendment, is once again seeing bipartisan support, with Republican Representatives Nancy Mace (R-South Carolina) and Maria Elvira Salazar (R-Florida) signing on as co-sponsors in the House. Booker also introduced a suite of bills that would establish labor rights for incarcerated people, including the right to a minimum wage.
You might think abolishing slavery once and for all would be a no-brainer. What lawmaker wants to be on the record opposing the abolition of forced labor? The political reality is not so simple. Legal enslavement of people convicted of crimes was an extremely contentious issue in 1865 and remains so today. Amending the Constitution requires a two-thirds majority in both houses of Congress to pass, and then two-thirds of state legislatures must ratify the change.
Despite gaining dozens of co-sponsors from both parties, including most Democrats in the House, the Abolition Amendment was left on the back burner during the previous session, according to Tylek. With a GOP-controlled House and a divided Senate, the current session has seen extreme levels of partisanship even for Congress. Partisan lawmakers are unable to agree on funding the government, let alone the legacy of slavery in U.S. history, advocates are strategically building support for fight that could take years.
“This congressional session is going to be chaotic, and lawmakers don’t tend to take stances on anything during a presidential election,” Tylek said.
Even a committee hearing on the Abolition Amendment would raise uncomfortable questions during an election season. Prisons rely on free or low-paid labor by incarcerated workers, who do everything from cleaning and maintenance to cooking in the kitchen. How would jails and prisons continue to function without additional funding? Does abolishing prison slavery also abolish solitary confinement as punishment for refusing to work? Why is solitary confinement legal in the first place? Passing both the constitutional amendment and Booker’s five labor rights bills would likely be necessary to truly abolish prison slavery, Tylek said.
“After you pass the constitutional amendment, you then need to answer the question: ‘What is slavery?’ which hasn’t been defined in precedent historically,” Tylek said. “Where is the line? You can’t force people to work with any threat of punishment? Is it about wages — is $3 an hour not slavery? What does that mean?”
Prison slavery is about profit, power and control, not “corrections” or public safety.
Paying prison laborers cents on the dollar or no money at all doesn’t just save jails and prisons, and therefore state and federal budgets, a lot of money. It’s also a massive source of profit for entities such as Corcraft and private companies that employ prisoners. Both prison wardens and lobbyists with the private prison industry would undoubtedly come out of the woodwork to oppose any changes in Congress, likely arguing that prison slavery is a necessary part of the “corrections” process. Such an argument falls flat for Perez, who said his years of work in prison both as a seamster and a counselor for other prisoners were “meaningless” in the job market after he was released.
“These folks have strong lobby interests, when you are making that kind of money,” Perez said. “The people who have been benefiting from the forced labor of these folks in one way or another would have to reckon with the losing that privilege.”
Brittany White worked at a Burger King while she was incarcerated for five years in Alabama. The prison then took 40 percent of her wages for the “privilege” to work outside the prison, often a reward for good behavior. Burger King’s management knew White was an incarcerated worker, but they were happy to have her working minimum wage.
“The women in Alabama are making minimum wage … but 40 percent of your check goes to the state of Alabama even before you touch the money,” White said in an interview, adding that Alabama charges prisoners $25 per week for the bus rides to jobs sites such as Burger King. “They are receiving minimum wage from the corporation, but always the state has their hands in the pot.”
Much of the money White did earn went right back to the prison, where she had to pay for basic hygiene supplies such as soap and food from the commissary to replace low-quality prison fare.
“Everybody has their hands in the cookie jar,” White said.
Would such practices remain legal if Congress abolished prison slavery? Would workers like Perez be owed back pay? Abolition raises deep questions about the entire prison system itself, which is literally built on the backs of incarcerated workers. In the seven states that removed the exception from their constitutions, courts are already facing these questions. In Colorado, private corporations are now required to pay a minimum wage to incarcerated workers after a ballot initiative abolished prison slavery. However, state prisons continue to require prisoners to maintain kitchens and other facilities for wages as low as 10 cents an hour. Now, these workers are behind a class-action lawsuit against the state prison system, arguing the work requirements violate the anti-slavery amendment.
Tylek said it may take years to litigate prison slavery out of existence, but the potential for change in the nation’s system of mass incarceration is huge. Despite all the money and politics, Tylek said lawmakers and voters must keep the moral imperative in mind. The exception included in the 13th Amendment was wrong in 1865, as the abolitionists in Congress fiercely argued, and it is wrong today. Prison slavery is about profit, power and control, not “corrections” or public safety. As White points out, extracting labor and wealth from families and communities impacted by mass incarceration leaves them less healthy and less safe.
“Think about the crazy conversations that were had in 1865, when lawmakers said slavery is wrong, but the South is going to collapse economically without it,” Tylek said. “But that doesn’t mean we should keep slavery. What are we willing to give up for our moral dignity?”