Four Alarming Facts About The American Prison Labor Force

person grasping at prison bars
Tremain Prioleau II
February 12, 2024

The Associated Press recently released findings detailing some of U.S. prison labor's most secretive and gruesome aspects. Their findings illustrate the state’s economic and civil exploitation of incarcerated people. Here are four key takeaways.

To talk about prison labor, we first have to understand how this is even allowed in the first place. The 13th Amendment is the key piece of white supremacist law in the Constitution that allows slavery and involuntary servitude as punishment for a crime. And this is how prisons are keeping enslavement alive.

Prison farms operate primarily in southern states like Arkansas, Texas, and Mississippi. Prisoners are forced to harvest crops on former slave plantations and get paid little to nothing. This is an extension of chattel slavery.

Workers’ compensation does not exist for incarcerated workers. They are held by the state but are not covered under any federal safety standards, meaning workers cannot file official complaints about their terrible treatment and working conditions.

There are also no worker protections for incarcerated people, making them the most vulnerable workers in America. If they refuse to work, solitary confinement is their punishment. Typical protections for many full-time workers are not guaranteed even if they get hurt or killed while working.

The AP also found that prison labor helps fuel many large companies' supply chains. Big companies like Walmart, Kroger, and McDonald’s were linked to prison labor. While some companies claim ignorance of the use of prison labor in their business, others, like Cargill and Bunge, buy directly from prisons. 

While these takeaways aren’t surprising, they remind us that the best way to address prison labor exploitation is to abolish the systems that create them in the first place.

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