American slavery, reinvented

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A nationwide movement hopes lớn close the ‘slavery loophole’ that enables the exploitation of 800,000 prisoners in the US


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Wages for prisoners range from 13 cents to 52 cents an hour. Photograph: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images
Wages for prisoners range from 13 cents lớn 52 cents an hour. Photograph: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images
When prison reformer Johnny Perez was incarcerated he made sheets, underwear & pillowcases working for Corcraft, a manufacturing division of new york State Correctional Services that uses prisoners lớn manufacture products for state và local agencies. His pay ranged between 17 cents và 36 cents an hour.

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“We have a system that forces people to lớn work and not only forces them lớn work but does not give them an adequate living wage,” said Perez. “Slavery by any name is wrong. Slavery in any shape or size is wrong.”


Perez is now part of a nationwide movement that hopes to lớn reform what some have called the “slavery loophole” that allows incarcerated people lớn be paid tiny sums for jobs that – if they refuse to do them – can have dire consequences.


The 13th amendment of the US constitution, ratified in 1865, abolished slavery and involuntary servitude. But it contained an exception for “a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted”.

This exception clause has been used to lớn exploit prisoners in the US as workers, paying them nothing to a few dollars a day lớn perform jobs ranging from prison services to lớn manufacturing or working for private employers where the majority of their pay is deducted for room và board and other expenses by the jurisdictions where they are incarcerated.

A report published by the American Civil Liberties Union in June 2022 found about 800,000 prisoners out of the 1.2 million in state and federal prisons are forced to work, generating a conservative estimate of $11bn annually in goods and services while average wages range from 13 cents to 52 cents per hour. Five states – Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Mississippi và Texas – force prisoners to work without pay. The report concluded that the labor conditions of US prisoners violate fundamental human rights lớn life và dignity.

A campaign to amend the constitution at the federal level and end the exception of the 13th amendment is being promoted by the US representative Nikema Williams & the senator Jeff Merkley. The bill has 175 co-sponsors in the House, 170 Democrats and 5 Republicans, and 14 co-sponsors in the US Senate, but has yet to lớn leave committee for a floor vote in either the House or Senate.

In the meantime the #EndTheException coalition, consisting of more than 80 national organizations, including criminal justice reform, civil rights and labor groups, is leading efforts khổng lồ pass the abolition amendment at the federal level và there are several local organizers fighting khổng lồ pass ballot initiatives at the state level.

In November voters will decide on whether khổng lồ remove exception clauses from their state constitutions in Alabama, Louisiana, Oregon, Tennessee và Vermont. An abolition amendment passed in the California assembly, but failed to lớn receive a Senate vote this year so that it could be on the ballot for voters this November.

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“The reality is that it is 2022 & in the United States, slavery is still legal,” said Bianca Tylek, founder và executive director of the non-profit Worth Rises. “These five states would join Colorado, Utah and Nebraska, states that have already ended the exception of their state’s constitutions. And so that would be exciting, that would bring that number khổng lồ eight, with five out the eight being red states & I think that bodes well for where the campaign can go at the federal level.”

It is time for change, said Johnny Perez. He emphasized that in prison, individuals aren’t provided adequate basic necessities such as food, toiletries, clothing & office supplies, & that the measly wages paid by these jobs don’t cover these extra expenses.

Refusing a work assignment can also have adverse consequences, he said, ranging from being placed in solitary confinement lớn having any work issues placed on your record which affects parole and status within a prison that determines what privileges you receive. Workers in prison bởi vì not get any paid time off & are often forced lớn work even when sick unless an infirmary affirms they are not able khổng lồ work.

Despite having five years’ full-time experience manufacturing textiles while in prison, that experience isn’t included on Perez’s résumé; incarcerated people, rather than have educational programs available khổng lồ better support them upon release, are forced to vì arduous manual labor jobs and often aren’t able khổng lồ find work in the same industry when they are released.

“It’s still continuing to lớn happen và it disproportionately impacts Black, brown & Indigenous people in this country,” said Perez. “So long as the exception clause exists, we will always have an underclass in this society that is going khổng lồ be the dumping ground for our problems & our shortcomings.”

This month the #EndTheException coalition launched the Except For Me digital chiến dịch to raise awareness of the issues, ending with the delivery of a petition khổng lồ Congress in tư vấn of the abolition amendment & an art installation in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

“This exception is about people và it’s about people for whom the 13th amendment doesn’t apply,” added Tylek. “We really want people to see those people and see the people that society has successfully otherwise hidden away.”

Among those featured in the chiến dịch is Britt White, who worked at a Burger King franchise in Alabama while in community status until 2014; about 60% of her wages were taken by the state of Alabama to lớn cover fees, room & board or restitution.


“Prison itself is expensive,” said White. “I can only speak for the state of Alabama where I was incarcerated, so providing hygiene, trying to supplement the lack of nourishment is very expensive, và my family had their own bills và financial responsibilities they had to lớn take care of. I still had more support than most people did & it was still very difficult khổng lồ survive in prison because everything has a cost associated with it.”

White explained there were medical fees associated with received medical care và sometimes the food provided was not fit for human consumption.

“I just can’t emphasize enough the lack of agency that you have,” added White. “If we are going to allow people who are incarcerated to lớn work jobs, we need khổng lồ pay them a livable wage & we need to center their dignity. We don’t need lớn place them in positions where there are hostile environments where they can be retaliated against và lose their agency.”

Her experience in the Alabama department of corrections drove her lớn work as an organizer in criminal justice reform to address the corruption and despair she witnessed và experienced in the prison system.

“We cannot condemn people, và then say that you deserve lớn be put away or you can’t come back to lớn society, you’re not trustworthy enough to live in the community with other people, but you are still good enough for us to make a profit. That is unforgivable,” trắng said. “And that is the part that is still very reminiscent of slavery that my ancestors went through is that they were not good enough khổng lồ be viewed as 100% as human beings, but they weren’t substantial enough lớn make a profit off of. That is the exception that has to be ended in our communities.”


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