The Origins of Prison Slavery
Shane Bauer, October 2, 2018, Slate
In August, an organization called the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee announced that prisoners in at least 17 states had pledged to stage a strike to protest prison conditions. It is unclear how many inmates actually took part in the 19-day strike, but organizers said “thousands“ refused to work, staged sit-ins, and turned away meals to demand “an immediate end to prison slavery.” Nationwide, inmates’ labor is essential to running prisons. They cook, clean, do laundry, cut hair, and fulfill numerous administrative tasks for cents on the dollar, if anything, in hourly pay. Prisoners have been used to package Starbucks coffee and make lingerie. In California, inmates volunteer to fight the state’s wildfires for just $1 an hour plus $2 per day.
The link between prison labor and slavery is not merely rhetorical. At the end of the Civil War, the 13th amendment abolished slavery “except as a punishment for a crime.” This opened the door for more than a century of forced labor that was in many ways identical to, and in some ways worse than, slavery. The following is an excerpt from my new book, American Prison: A Reporter’s Undercover Journey Into the Business of Punishment. The book details my time working undercover as a prison guard in a for-profit prison in Louisiana. It also traces the ways in which our prison system evolved out of the attempt of Southern businessmen to keep slavery alive.