It is a common but mistaken assumption that the Thirteenth Amendment completely banned slavery. The Thirteenth Amendment reads as follows: “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 .” There is one loophole to the prohibition of slavery, and that is as a punishment for a crime for which the convict has been duly convicted. Now, normally this ought not to present a serious concern, but given that the United States has about 3% of its adult population in either prison, jail, parole, or probation, this exception to the prohibition on slavery involves a considerable portion of the American population at present.
Where better to learn about the effects of slavery on prisoners than those prisoners themselves? As it happens, there is a very useful resource on the immense problem of prison slavery from former prisoners who are (not surprisingly) against the process itself in Great Britain . Unfortunately, a great deal of the rhetoric against slavery consists mainly of accusations that prisons are simply the tool of racism, with a hostility to drug crimes and mandatory sentences and a fairly bogus tying of movements against prison slavery with 19th century abolitionist movements . This sort of rhetoric is likely only to appeal to the converted–those who view America’s prison system as a deliberately racist and globalist phenomenon. Unfortunately, these sorts of rhetoric are long on accusations and short on statistics and data, and so are of limited use to those interested in a better understanding of the phenomenon of prison slavery.
Evidence is pretty substantial that prisons are part of a prison-industrial complex where the slave labor provided by prisoners leads to private profits on the part of others . A large amount of military contracting and paint manufacturing, for example, is done by prison labor. Such workers, because they lack any freedom, are a stable source of labor that have few options and require no wages and fairly minimal working conditions that allow American manufacturing (and that of other industrialized countries) to be competitive with other countries.
There are some troubling implications here. For one, any increase in the criminal population creates a situation by which slave labor competes with (and degrades) free labor. Every job being performed by a prison worker is a job that will not ever go to a more expensive (and more demanding) free laborer. Likewise, as there are a great deal of employers who refuse to hire those who have prison records , it is difficult for someone to escape from the trap of imprisonment once they are a part of the system. The prisoner would appear to be far the worse for the bargain–whatever gains in job skills they have are greatly offset by their lack of freedom, the difficult living and working conditions they face as unfree labor, and the increased difficulty in finding good work on the outside. It would seem far more beneficial to the larger system if there were good opportunities for people to find work.
There is one other troubling aspect of imprisonment as a model for dealing with crimes. For one, there is a great (and mistaken) idea that people in prison need to pay a debt to society. However, crimes in general consist of wrongs done to individuals. A thief does not need to pay a debt to society, but the person that they stole from. A murderer does not owe a debt of society, but to the victim and his or her family. And that is generally true of crimes in general. There are no victimless crimes–spouses are harmed by adultery and prostitution, and drug offenses harm family and business relationships due to drug-induced incompetence, a loss of trust, and the petty crimes that support such habits, such as lying and theft. Our general way of dealing with such offenses through jail fails to compensate the victims for those crimes (indeed, such victims and their interests are often completely ignored), heavy expenses are given to the taxpayer to support prison systems, and the prisoners themselves serve to help others make profits.
This is troublesome in its implications. In fact, it is worthwhile to examine what sort of behaviors are criminalized as a way of determining what sort of people are marked for exploitation. By and large, it is to be expected that most criminal burdens will fall on those who do not have the resources to fight as effectively as others. Poor and debt ridden and marginalized populations would seem to fall under a disproportionate share of any sanctions that come in a given society, especially since we are in a society that is rapidly criminalizing our rising debt burden, a situation that is of grave concern. Needless to say, the rising threat of criminalized debt is leading to a great deal of conspiracy theories . However, even those of us who are not so inclined to believe in New World Order conspiracy theories find it of grave concern (to say nothing of deeply hypocritical) that increasingly debt-ridden societies should attempt to criminalize the debt of their citizens. We’re all in this boat together.
And that leads to another problem. The threat of criminalization of behaviors on a wide scale, the exploitation and mistreatment of the prison population, and the difficulty (or even impossibility) of getting second chances once one is part of “the system” combine to make the threat of slavery through the back door a real one. For the most part, this threat is currently being faced by those who are considered fairly marginal parts of society. But if such a state threatens more mainstream audiences, it will receive a great deal more scrutiny and hostility. We ought to be aware, at least, that the threat exists, so that we try to avoid being caught up in such a state if we can avoid it.