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American Prisons: Slavery in the 21st Century


The Clintons had slaves when Bill was governor of Arkansas. But that’s just the beginning.

It recently came to light that in Hillary Clinton’s 1996 book, It Takes a Village, she wrote about how when her husband was governor of Arkansas, they had state prisoners working in and around the governor’s mansion, as was tradition–and a cost-saving measure, at that. If you want to read more about the specifics, you are welcome to do so. I want to tackle this issue more broadly and walk through how we got to this point, where we can go from here, and hopefully provoke some thoughts in you, the reader, along the way.

What about human rights?

It’s impossible to have this discussion unless we can agree on some ground rules. I call these ground rules “human rights.” There are many arguments for what rights people have (or should have), how they should be protected, and who or what ultimately grants or denies them. My position is simple and straightforward: every human being is a person endowed with basic rights by virtue of being human. These rights are deserved by default and must not be individually earned. The next question is: which rights? The right to life is the most fundamental, which is why I unilaterally oppose the death penalty.

But rights are imperfect. One person can use their rights to infringe on the rights of another. States can do this, too. When an individual does it, we call it a crime. When the state does it, we call it justice. For now, I’m not making this claim in a judgmental fashion. The concept of justice necessarily requires that one person be deprived in order to make amends to another or to society as a whole. As an example, if you steal from someone, you may be required to both return their property and make some additional restitution. It is obviously an infringement of your rights to be forced to pay such a penalty, whatever that penalty may be, but we collectively accept this bargain to deter future crimes.

More generally, however, we must decide where rights originate and who ultimately controls them. Must individuals justify their human rights, or must the state justify instances in which it infringes on those rights? My view is the latter. In the pursuit of justice and the social order, it may sometimes be necessary to infringe on the rights of individuals, but these infringements should never go beyond the absolute minimum required to accomplish the desired goal. To infringe on a person’s rights beyond this threshold of necessity is inherently unjust.

What are prisons for?

This brings us to the purpose and implementation of prisons. What is acceptable and unacceptable in a particular state-based society is enshrined in the law. Those who obey the law, in theory, remain free and unmolested. Those who break the law, by contrast, face consequences which include various infringements of their human rights. Which rights are curtailed and to what extent typically boils down to which philosophy of incarceration one subscribes to. I suggest these three, and I’m sure this is not a novel set of categories:

  * Protective -- Prisons exist to protect law-abiding people from dangerous criminals.
  * Rehabilitative -- Prisons exist to turn law-breakers into law-abiders.
  * Punitive -- Prisons exist to punish those who break the law.

In my estimation, most people expect prisons to serve all three of these purposes to one extent or another. But I will discount the punitive philosophy right off the bat. There is very little evidence that people learn anything meaningful from punishment. Current psychological research indicates that punishment simply does not work. It doesn’t change the underlying behaviors being punished. This leaves the protective and rehabilitative models.

The protective model is simple enough: you physically remove someone from society for a period of time. By definition, someone who is physically isolated from the rest of society is no longer a danger to society. The very act of putting someone in prison and keeping them there for the duration serves the purpose.

The rehabilitative model is more complicated since “rehabilitation” can mean so many different things. Is a rehabilitated convict someone who exits prison with the skills and resources to become a gainfully-employed, law-abiding, productive member of society? Or is it just someone you remove from prison after they’ve served their time, send them on their way, and hope they don’t commit any more crimes? We can find opinions everywhere along this spectrum. One can view rehabilitation as a pragmatic or humane choice: we do it because it is sensible for people to rejoin society with the skills they need to stay there; or because it is fundamentally right to treat people as people. I will go ahead and stake out my position: rehabilitation should be available but not compulsory; it should consist of education and/or skilled training consistent with the prisoner’s interests, aptitudes, and capabilities; it should include any necessary or beneficial healthcare, including mental health treatment; it should also consist of work opportunities. It is necessary because every prisoner deserves humane treatment.

What is work worth?

To work is human. Labor is inherent to each of us. This doesn’t have to be in the current conventional sense of holding a job and making money, either. To create art is labor. Organizing one’s space is labor. Raising children is labor. Every act that creates order out of chaos, benefits yourself or another person, makes something useful or complex out of things simple or useless–it is all labor. I don’t like to generalize, but if there is one thing we are all made to do, it is work. We make with our hands, with our minds, with our skills, with our intellects, with our hearts. It is as necessary as breathing.

If we must have prisons, then, it is inherently humane to offer work to prisoners. In the US, some prisons pay their workers–albeit almost always well below minimum wage, with the average being 93 cents an hour. Some prisons don’t. Both justify these practices by way of the expenses of housing and feeding prisoners.

But these claims are hard to take seriously when many prisons are privately-run for profit, and the companies operating them essentially make money from the labor of prisoners. Were they able to extract these profits while paying prisoners a fair wage, you could merely call it capitalism. But since prisoners are either drastically underpaid or not paid at all, there is a more appropriate word: slavery.

Why do prisoners deserve a fair wage?

It’s a reasonable question with a number of arguments in different directions. I will cut through it and keep it simple. Since infringements on human rights must be justified by the state infringing them, such infringements should be carried out to the absolute minimum necessary to achieve the desired purpose. Keeping someone away from society does not necessitate extracting unpaid or underpaid work from them. Rehabilitating someone does not entail this, either. Instead, it is inherently dehumanizing. It is an intentional, constant reminder that one is imprisoned, deprived of their autonomy, and not entitled to the fruits of their labor–a basic human right. In other words, it is punitive.

Even if one agrees with such an approach because it inflicts punishment on criminals, the fact that this punishment results in profits for corporations should raise serious criticism. If the purpose is punishment, why extract profits? And if the purpose is, in fact, profits, why hide it under the false pretext of punishment?

To examine it from another direction: why does committing a crime automatically devalue one’s labor? What does one have to do with the other? Some might argue that committing a crime automatically deprives a person of almost every right, but this suggests that rights are created and granted by the state, and that the state may rescind them at will, for any or no reason at all. After all, it’s not as if laws are universally just and sound. Unjust laws always exist. Just laws can be applied unjustly or unfairly. This is incredibly dangerous reasoning–it gives the state absolute, unquestioned authority to decide what rights exist, who is entitled to them, and who is instead deserving of abuse and cruelty. This is the kind of reasoning that allowed the George W. Bush administration to unilaterally detain and torture people–often completely innocent individuals–and deny them rights that they should have been entitled to under either US law or international treaties to which the US is a party.

But isn’t slavery illegal?

It is commonly believed that the US outlawed slavery in the aftermath of the Civil War. It is true that the 13th Amendment to the US Constitution outlaws slavery in general. But look at the actual text:

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.

(Emphasis mine.)

The New Jim Crow examined this topic at some length, though in my reading I believe it only covered the tip of the iceberg. Convict labor is not a side effect or unintended consequence, but a practice intentionally enshrined in our Constitution as a means of extracting labor from people without paying for it. Slavery is, in fact, legal here, as long as you’ve been convicted of a crime.

What if the system is broken?

Thus far, I have proceeded from the assumption that people in prison deserve to be there–that they have committed crimes which necessitate removing them from society, that they received due process including competent legal representation and a fair trial, that their sentence is proportionate to their crime, and that the laws used to charge, try, and convict them are just both in conception and application. But we know that this isn’t true. Mentioned above, The New Jim Crow is a good place to start, but is essentially a primer on these issues. The fact is that the US justice system is unjust in virtually every respect makes the use of convict slave labor all the more egregious. It would be bad enough to use people justly and properly convicted of crimes for free or underpaid labor–to do it to people who’ve committed victimless crimes, who’ve broken unjust laws, who are falsely imprisoned or excessively punished–this rises to the level of atrocity. This is what crimes against humanity are made of.

In truth, the US justice system is overwhelmingly racialized from end to end. As we know, police are more likely to shoot black suspects than white ones–even when those suspects are unarmed. People of color are convicted more often and receive harsher sentences than their white counterparts for identical crimes. The War on Drugs is and has always been an assault on people of color, designed to criminalize and punish them. We uphold these injustices through a system built and informed by racist attitudes, by white supremacy. A system in which we elect sheriffs, prosecutors, and judges means that justice is defined, not by what’s right and wrong, but by which demographics can be most politically organized, connected, and well-funded. Due to this country’s history, that demographic in any given region is most likely to be white people, especially those with some financial means.

How do we fix this?

To answer that question, we must ask what kind of future we want.

My long-term view is one of prison abolition, replaced with restorative justice mechanisms. I am sure most people don’t agree with that goal, but that is no reason not to address what we can agree on. If we believe that slavery is wrong, then it should be wrong for everyone. There shouldn’t be exceptions. If we believe in human rights–if we believe that individual rights exist and must be upheld–then we cannot support slavery, any slavery. Otherwise, those rights become meaningless.

It would take a Constitutional amendment to completely outlaw convict slavery, but we can look at the progress made in eliminating the death penalty to see how this can be done at a state-by-state level: through constant advocacy and pressure. Many people don’t even know that prisoners are treated this way. If they did, they might be more inclined to speak out. This issue is obviously not a legislative priority–but that doesn’t mean it can’t become one.

Clinton’s book is over 20 years old, and yet not much has changed since then in terms of how we treat prisoners, and in our continued enslavement of them. Arkansas is one of the few states that still doesn’t pay prisoners anything for the work they do. There is no excuse for this. It’s time to get rid of this abhorrent practice. If you disagree, please ask yourself: why, of all things, would you want to defend slavery?