Penal labor in the United States
This article is incomplete.(December 2013)
Penal labor in the United States, when intended as a form of slavery or involuntary servitude, is explicitly allowed by the 13th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. This form of legal slavery is only allowed when used as punishment for committing a crime. The 13th Amendment states that "neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for a crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction." Unconvicted detainees awaiting trial cannot be forced to participate in forced rehabilitative labor programs in prison as it violates the Thirteenth Amendment.
The "convict lease" system became popular throughout the American South following the American Civil War and into the 20th century. Since the impoverished state governments could not afford penitentiaries, they leased out prisoners to work at private firms. According to Douglas A. Blackmon, because of the revenue received by local governments, they had incentives to arrest blacks; tens of thousands of African Americans were arbitrarily arrested and leased to coal mines, lumber camps, brickyards, railroads, quarries, and farm plantations. In Florida, convicts were often sent to work in lumber camps and turpentine factories. The state governments maximized profits by putting the responsibility on the lessee to provide food, clothing, shelter, and medical care for the prisoners, with little oversight. This resulted in extremely poor conditions, numerous deaths, and perhaps the most inhumane system of labor in the United States. Reformers abolished convict leasing in the 20th-century Progressive Era, stopping the system in Florida in 1919. The last state to abolish the practice was Alabama in 1927.
Mississippi for-profit prison labor
Forced labor exists in many prisons. In Mississippi, Parchman Farm operated as a for-profit plantation, which yielded revenues for the state from its earliest years. Many prisoners were used to clear the dense growth in the Mississippi bottomland, and then to cultivate the land for agriculture. By the mid-20th century, it had 21,000 acres (8,498 ha) under cultivation. In the late 20th century, prison conditions were investigated under civil rights laws, when abuses of prisoners and harsh working conditions were exposed. These revelations during the 1970s lead the state to abandon the for-profit aspect of its forced labor from convicts and planned to hire a professional penologist to head the prison. A state commission recommended reducing the size of acreage, to grow only what is needed for the prison.
Hired convict labor
In 1924, the U.S. Secretary of Commerce, Herbert Hoover, held a conference on the “ruinous and unfair competition between prison-made products and free industry and labor” (70 Cong. Rec. S656 (1928)). The eventual legislative response to the committee’s report led to federal laws regulating the manufacture, sale and distribution of prison-made products. Congress enacted the Hawes-Cooper Act in 1929, the Ashurst-Sumners Act in 1935 (now known as 18 U.S.C. § 1761(a)), and the Walsh-Healey Act in 1936. Walsh controlled the production of prison-made goods while Ashurst prohibited the distribution of such products in interstate transportation or commerce. Both statutes authorized federal criminal prosecutions for violations of state laws enacted pursuant to the Hawes-Cooper Act. Private companies got involved again in 1979, when Congress passed a law establishing the Prison Industry Enhancement Certification Program which allows employment opportunities for prisoners in some circumstances. PIECP relaxed the restrictions imposed under the Ashurst-Sumners and Walsh-Healey Acts, and allowed for the manufacture, sale and distribution of prisoner-made products across state lines. However, PIECP limited participation in the program to 38 jurisdictions (later increased to 50), and required each to apply to the U.S. Department of Justice for certification.
According to the International Labor Organization, in 2000-2011 wages in American prisons ranged between $0.23 and $1.15 an hour. In California, prisoners earn between $0.30 and $0.95 an hour before deductions.
Over the years, the courts have held that inmates may be required to work and are not protected by the constitutional prohibition against involuntary servitude. They have also consistently held that inmates have no constitutional right to compensation and that inmates are paid by the "grace of the state.” Under the Federal Bureau of Prisons, all able-bodied sentenced prisoners were required to work, except those who participated full-time in education or other treatment programs or who were considered security risks. Correctional standards promulgated by the American Correctional Association provide that sentenced inmates, who are generally housed in maximum, medium, or minimum security prisons, be required to work and be paid for that work. Some states require, as with Arizona, all able-bodied inmates to work.
Inmates have reported that some private companies, such as Martori Farms, do not check for medical background or age when pulling women for jobs.
Free Alabama Movement
Three prisoners — Melvin Ray, James Pleasant and Robert Earl Council — who led work stoppages in Alabama prisons in January 2014 as part of the Free Alabama Movement have been in solitary confinement since the start of the labor strike. Protests took place in three Alabama prisons, and the movement has smuggled out videos and pictures of abusive conditions, and authorities say the men will remain in solitary confinement indefinitely. The prisoners’ work stoppages and refusal to cooperate with authorities in Alabama are modeled on actions that took place in the Georgia prison system in December 2010. The strike leaders argue that refusing to work is a tactic that would force prison authorities to hire compensated labor or to induce the prisoners to return to their jobs by paying a fair wage. Prisoners appear to be currently organizing in Arizona, California, Florida, Illinois, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Mississippi, Texas, Virginia and Washington.
Council, one of the founders of the Free Alabama Movement, said "We will not work for free anymore. All the work in prisons, from cleaning to cutting grass to working in the kitchen, is done by inmate labor. [Almost no prisoner] in Alabama is paid. Without us the prisons, which are slave empires, cannot function. Prisons, at the same time, charge us a variety of fees, such as for our identification cards or wrist bracelets, and [impose] numerous fines, especially for possession of contraband. They charge us high phone and commissary prices. Prisons each year are taking larger and larger sums of money from the inmates and their families. The state gets from us millions of dollars in free labor and then imposes fees and fines. You have [prisoners] that work in kitchens 12 to 15 hours a day and have done this for years and have never been paid.”
Ray said “We do not believe in the political process ... We are not looking to politicians to submit reform bills. We aren’t giving more money to lawyers. We don’t believe in the courts. We will rely only on protests inside and outside of prisons and on targeting the corporations that exploit prison labor and finance the school-to-prison pipeline. We have focused our first boycott on McDonald’s. McDonald’s uses prisoners to process beef for patties and package bread, milk, chicken products. We have called for a national Stop Campaign against McDonald’s. We have identified this corporation to expose all the others. There are too many corporations exploiting prison labor to try and take them all on at once.”
Federal Prison Industries (UNICOR or FPI) is a wholly owned United States government corporation created in 1934 that uses penal labor from the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) to produce goods and services. FPI is restricted to selling its products and services to federal government agencies, with some recent exceptions.
California Prison Industry Authority is an entity within the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) that develops and operates industrial, agricultural, and service enterprises using penal labor.
- Tsesis, The Thirteenth Amendment and American Freedom (2004), pp. 17 & 34. "It rendered all clauses directly dealing with slavery null and altered the meaning of other clauses that had originally been designed to protect the institution of slavery."
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- Title 18 U.S. Code § 4122 Section A - Administration of Federal Prison Industries