Anti-Racism 101

12 Prison Slavery


Prisoners are disproportionately people of color; often labor for pennies or no pay under terrible conditions—those America has deemed inhumane outside of prison walls; are threatened with solitary confinement or other punishments if they don’t comply; and are often gouged for personal necessities from the prison store. The emphasis is not job skills, but cheap labor, and prison labor used by companies like Victoria’s Secret, Wal-Mart, Starbucks, Nintendo, etc creates unfair market competition, which helps to fuel the Prison-industrial complex.

“American slavery was technically abolished in 1865, but a loophole in the 13th Amendment has allowed it to continue ‘as a punishment for crimes’ well into the 21st century. Not surprisingly, corporations have lobbied for a broader and broader definition of ‘crime’ in the last 150 years. As a result, there are more (mostly dark-skinned) people performing mandatory, essentially unpaid, hard labor in America today than there were in 1830.” –Sara Burrows

After the Civil War, whites in the South refused to give up their control over black populations or the bigotry on which that rested. While sharecropping and Jim Crow laws kept blacks unfree, the criminal-justice system was used to replicate slavery; blacks were imprisoned for minor offenses and then rented out for forced labor. By 1898, 73 percent of Alabama’s state revenue came from convict leasing.

Any possibility of resistance was squelched by the constant threat of lynching — public spectacles in which blacks were tortured, burned alive, hung, shot or dismembered for any offense or no offense at all. Thousands of whites would gather to watch. Postcards of the event would be printed and sold. Toes and fingers and other body parts would be distributed.” –Fred Hiatt

“The picture that emerges is one of slavery. It is one of a ‘justice’ system riddled with racial oppression. It is one of private business taking advantage of these disenfranchised, vulnerable workers. It is one of an entire caste of men relegated, as they have long been relegated, to labor for free, condemned to sow in perpetuity so that others might reap.” –Whitney Benns

“The figures show that the United States has locked up more people than any other country: a half million more than China, which has a population five times greater than the U.S. Statistics reveal that the United States holds 25% of the world’s prison population, but only 5% of the world’s people. From less than 300,000 inmates in 1972, the jail population grew to 2 million by the year 2000. In 1990 it was one million. Ten years ago there were only five private prisons in the country, with a population of 2,000 inmates; now, there are 100, with 62,000 inmates. It is expected that by the coming decade, the number will hit 360,000, according to reports.

“The prison industry complex is one of the fastest-growing industries in the United States and its investors are on Wall Street. This multimillion-dollar industry has its own trade exhibitions, conventions, websites, and mail-order/Internet catalogs. It also has direct advertising campaigns, architecture companies, construction companies, investment houses on Wall Street, plumbing supply companies, food supply companies, armed security, and padded cells in a large variety of colors.” –Vicky Pelaez

The Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee (IWOC), a union that facilitates communication between prisoners across the country, issued the work stoppage demands Tuesday following the incident. The demands from the C-block prisoners included their push for a national conversation about ‘how state prison farms across the country came to hold hundreds of thousands of people of African descent against their will.’ IWOC did not respond for comment from Newsweek. But in a separate statement provided to Newsweek Thursday, Decarcerate Louisiana said sources within the prison claim ‘at least 50 prisoners have been refusing to go to work for about a month on that cellblock.’

We are urging that local, state and federal governments who currently hold hundreds of thousands of African Americans on prison farms across the country be investigated for antebellum criminality, involuntary servitude and slavery,’ their release provided online said.” –Benjamin Fearnow

Employment upon release is perhaps the best defense against recidivism. The chief justification for prison labor is that it both defeats idleness and gives inmates marketable skills. Whether it actually does so is unclear. ‘The vast majority of prison labor is not even cloaked in the idea of rehabilitation,’ says Heather Thompson of the University of Michigan. Simple manufacturing jobs, like the ones done cheaply by most inmates, have already left the country. The study pushed by the Bureau of Prisons, showing drops in reoffending, was published in 1996. More recent comparison statistics often ignore bias in how those being studied are chosen. Rigorous academic work on the subject is almost non-existent.

Still, such programs are undoubtedly legal. The Thirteenth Amendment to the constitution prohibits slavery and indentured servitude—‘except as a punishment for crime.’”  –The Economist

Huge rise in numbers of incarcerated women of color:

Brief, thoughtful take on prison abolition:

Quotes from Angela Davis’ landmark work on prison abolition:

More key articles:……

Sample letter to companies that use prison labor:


It has come to my attention that _______________ is on a list of companies that use prison labor for their work force, compensating those prisoners at an unconscionably low wage.

Given the current facts about prisons and the criminal justice system –the over-policing of communities of color and poor communities; the disparate sentencing and the higher rates of incarceration for people of color; the profit of prisons; and the overcharging of the incarcerated and their families for commissary items and phone service–I believe that if you are using prison labor, you are participating in this century’s version of slavery.

Do you have an exit strategy from this policy? If the answer is no, I will be boycotting [your product(s)] in favor of a non-prison-labor company. In addition, I have many friends who shop at __________ and I am prepared to organize among them to call attention to this problem.

We cannot continue to profit from a criminal justice system that perpetuates modern-day slavery.

I look forward to your response.