Currently, the US prison population is being put to work for pennies per hour. Often, the benefactors of this labor are private corporations, including Wal-Mart, Starbucks, Victoria’s Secret, and AT&T.
Our prison population is not only the largest in the world, both per capita and by pure scale, but is also disproportionately black and latino, largely due to racial discrimination in the justice system. In recent years, prison labor has been heavily criticized. Books like The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander, and a variety of major online news sources, including The Atlantic, The Guardian, Salon, and Vice have decried the practice of prison labor in the US. Many have compared prison labor to slavery, Jim Crow laws, and indentured servitude.
Unfortunately, a lot of people in the US are unaware that prison labor occurs on such a scale. When talking about this issue, activists are met with the question, “how is this legal? Didn’t the 13th Amendment end slavery?”
The answer: Section 1 of the 13th Amendment reads, “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.” For just over 150 years, slavery has been completely prohibited in the US, with one exception: if you have been convicted of a crime. Many states’ constitutions have similar language; Article II Section 26 of the Colorado Constitution reads, “there shall never be in this state either slavery or involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime, whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.”
The US has a long, horrendous history of systemically oppressing people of color, from slavery, to Jim Crow laws, to redlining, and racially-biased mass incarceration. Unfortunately, these kinds of abuses continue to be far too commonplace.
Fortunately, there are many advocates working to ameliorate these atrocities, and a number of ways you can get involved. Last month, the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee organized mass prison strikes across the US on September 9th. You can keep an eye out for future strikes, and organize a protest in solidarity with the prisoners.
In Colorado, Amendment T is on the ballot November 8th, 2016, which removes “except as a punishment for crime, whereof the party shall have been duly convicted” from the state’s constitution. It is unlikely that Amendment T will affect current prison work programs, which are regulated under other state laws; however, removing the prison slave labor exemption is a first step in raising awareness about ending prison labor in Colorado. You should vote yes on Amendment T and encourage your Colorado friends to do so as well. If you don’t live in Colorado, you can start a campaign to get similar legislation in your state.
The most important thing you can do is to inform your communities about these abuses. We cannot allow our legacy to continue to be one of systemic racial discrimination and mass incarceration. Please, take action today.