Racial justice advocates call for end to forced prison labor with groundbreaking proposal

Racial justice advocates are calling for an end to unpaid and underpaid prison labor in a new report on mass incarceration and corporate profiteering.

Private corporations rake in billions in annual profits off the backs of incarcerated workers, who make, on average, zero to 63 cents per hour.
Private corporations rake in billions in annual profits off the backs of incarcerated workers, who make, on average, zero to 63 cents per hour.  © SPENCER PLATT / GETTY IMAGES NORTH AMERICA / Getty Images via AFP

The blueprint, created by Color of Change and Worth Rises, lays out recommendations across several policy areas for the Biden Administration to end carceral profiteering, including in prison labor.

According to the report, there were around 870,000 incarcerated workers in 2014, but a lack of government statistics makes it difficult to know exactly how big the prison labor industry is today.

This is an issue that disproportionately affects Black people, who account for around 38% of the US prison population despite making up just 13% of the national population, and is a direct holdover from the era of chattel slavery. While some states have amended their constitutions to ban enslavement, the 13th Amendment of the US Constitution still allows for exceptions in cases of criminal punishment.

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Private corporations have taken advantage of this loophole to generate an estimated $80 billion in annual revenues at the expense of people behind bars. Color of Change and Worth Rises found that incarcerated workers make, on average, zero to 63 cents per hour – far below the minimum wage in any US state.

On top of that, incarcerated people are regularly threatened with solitary confinement and other punitive measures if they do not agree to work. The US legal system typically does not apply federal labor laws that guarantee minimum wages, overtime pay, and the right to organize and engage in collective bargaining to people behind bars.

Low wages and lack of protections have devastating consequences, making it difficult for incarcerated people to meet their own basic needs, maintain contact with their loved ones, and access medical treatment.

Demands to end exploitation of incarcerated workers

Racial justice advocates are calling for the Biden-Harris administration to take meaningful steps to end corporate profiteering in the prison-industrial complex.
Racial justice advocates are calling for the Biden-Harris administration to take meaningful steps to end corporate profiteering in the prison-industrial complex.  © MICHAEL M. SANTIAGO / GETTY IMAGES NORTH AMERICA / GETTY IMAGES VIA AFP

The blueprint points out that the federal government bears direct responsibility for continuing this system. The US Department of Justice markets incarcerated workers to private companies as a "cost-effective labor pool" with "native English and Spanish language skills."

That's why advocates are calling on President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris to effect immediate change through several policy proposals.

Their recommendations include:

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  • Ending the slavery loophole in the 13th Amendment
  • Passing federal legislation to guarantee basic rights to incarcerated workers
  • Creating model prison labor legislation for states and municipalities to adopt
  • Conducting a comprehensive, national study on the scope of prison labor and its impact on the US economy
  • Making sure prison labor is voluntary and not forced
  • Ensuring incarcerated workers make at least minimum wage
  • Extending workplace health and safety measures to incarcerated workers

The organizations also call for comprehensive reforms in medical care, food, telecommunications, financial services, and electronic monitoring.

"For the health and safety of our communities, it is imperative that the Biden-Harris Administration make every effort to divest from profiteering throughout the criminal legal system in its entirety," the report concludes.

Cover photo: SPENCER PLATT / GETTY IMAGES NORTH AMERICA / Getty Images via AFP

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