Forced Labor in Prisons

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The 13th Amendment to the United States Constitution abolished slavery and involuntary servitude “except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.” This exception has significantly impacted prison labor practices in the United States. While the amendment ostensibly ended slavery, it opened the door to the exploitation of incarcerated individuals, enabling a system of forced labor in prisons.

The punishment clause exception has contributed to a profit-driven prison-industrial complex under which private companies and government entities capitalize on cheap or unpaid prison labor. Some of the most common forms of prison labor include cleaning, doing laundry, food service, working with machinery, and cutting hair.

Incarcerated workers are excluded from workplace protections, including minimum wage laws, the right to unionize, and workplace safety regulations. Workers earn pennies per hour, over half of which is used to pay for room and board, court costs, and other prison maintenance fees. 70% of incarcerated people are unable to afford basic necessities with their prison wages; a $3 tube of toothpaste or $5 stick of deodorant can take days off work to afford.

Incarcerated individuals are stripped of their right to refuse work. Three out of every four incarcerated individuals reported being forced to work under the threat of additional punishment, such as solitary confinement, denial of sentence reductions, or loss of visitation privileges. Denying incarcerated workers fair wages and safe working conditions is a violation of fundamental human rights. Moreover, the prison labor system disproportionately affects marginalized communities, particularly Black people and persons of color, as a result of their overrepresentation in the prison population.

FNUSA has joined a growing movement to remove the punishment clause from the 13th Amendment. The punishment clause has been historically and disproportionately applied to marginalized communities. Comprehensive criminal justice reform is critical, including addressing over-policing, harsh sentencing practices, and mass incarceration. Eliminating the clause begins to confront the exploitative nature of prison labor and is a step towards recognizing the dignity and humanity of all individuals – including those who are incarcerated.