The Passing of the 13th Amendment Led to the First Incarceration Boom in America – Are People Still Profiting from Forced Labor?

By Amaya Flores-Montero, age 11 and IndyKids Staff

Thousands of prisoners across Alabama went on strike in Sept. 2022 demanding better working conditions and improved medical and mental health treatment. The Equal Justice Initiative found that Alabama incarcerates people at a higher rate than any other state, and their prisons are also the deadliest in the nation. In Alabama, Black people make up 28% of the general population, but 54% of the prison population.

A report by The Sentencing Project found that Black Americans are incarcerated at five times the rate of white Americans. Many have argued that the roots of racial disparity within the U.S. prison system trace back to the 13th Amendment of 1865, which abolished most slavery, but significantly included the words “except as a punishment for crime.” This loophole allowed people and companies to continue to profit from forced labor, and many still do today. As noted by the Vera Institute of Justice, 1865 also triggered the nation’s first prison boom, with arrests of Black Americans surging exponentially. 

Incarcerated workers have almost no workers’ rights. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) published a report in June 2022 which found that around 800,000 prisoners out of the 1.2 million in state and federal prisons are forced to work. Their forced labor generates an estimated $11 billion every year in goods and services, while the average prisoner is paid just 52 cents per hour. A prison labor report survey by the ACLU and the University of Chicago’s Global Human Rights Clinic found that 70% of incarcerated workers said they were not able to afford basic necessities with their prison wages. 

Many prisoner advocates are pushing for prison work to become voluntary. The Global Human Rights Clinic and the ACLU also released a report in June 2022 urging the removal of all laws and policies that punish incarcerated people who refuse to work. 

According to the Pew Research Institute, some crime victims groups support raising wages. “The public assumes that people hurt by crime would want the worst possible prison experience for those who committed the crimes,” Lenore Anderson, founder and president of the Alliance for Safety and Justice, explained to Pew. “But that’s not what we find. People want them to succeed,” she said. “How do we know after someone has served time they’re prepared for living in society? That’s what rehabilitation, work and education programs do.” However, the Alabama prison strikes show us that dismantling prisons as a legacy of slavery still has a long way to go.

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