Forced prison labor continues to enslave Black Americans

Richard Wallace is founder and executive director of the not-for-profit organization Equity and Transformation. He wrote this column for the Chicago Tribune.

As Juneteenth celebrations and paraphernalia begin to litter our social media timelines, we must remember that slavery has yet to be truly abolished. To this day, in prisons and jails across the country, government agencies and corporations legally exploit forced prison labor thanks to an exception baked into the 13th Amendment that allows for slavery as criminal punishment.

As someone who was enslaved under this exception, left unprotected by the sacrosanct 13th Amendment, I understand its design intimately.

Here in Illinois, tens of thousands of incarcerated people are forced to work under the threat of force for pennies an hour. Incarcerated workers groom dogs, recycle waste, manufacture reading glasses and produce a variety of other products. Until last year, their services and products could be sold by the Department of Corrections to other state agencies, as well as private businesses and nonprofits, at a generous profit margin.

Illinois correction officers have even used prison labor to wash cars and shine shoes at staff fundraising events. Prison officials described the behavior as “bad ethically” and “bad morally” and soon claimed to terminate the practices. But this claim demands that we ask: Where exactly is the ethical and moral line on prison labor? After all, agency policy still explicitly prohibits paying incarcerated people more than $50 per month or $600 per year.

Given this abuse of incarcerated workers and that 56 percent are Black in Illinois, it’s hard not to recognize prison labor as a clear extension of slavery. And its impact reaches far outside of prison gates, to Black neighborhoods decimated by mass incarceration such as Chicago’s West Garfield Park, where the population is 95 percent Black and the average annual income is just over $23,000. The community will not see a single penny of reinvestment from the hard work of its residents now behind bars. Instead, families will spend more just to stay connected and support their loved ones inside.

Proponents of forcing and underpaying prison labor say that it gives valuable skills to incarcerated people that they can use after their release. The reality is that incarceration creates an unshakable stigma that often instead prevents employment. The Bureau of Justice Statistics found that roughly 33 percent of people released from federal prison in 2010 were unable to find employment within the first four years. Research has shown that callback rates drop as much as 50 percent once an employer learns of a prior conviction. In other words, people come home eager to work and support their families but are denied the opportunity.

Because of these barriers, many formerly incarcerated people are forced to turn to the informal economy to provide for themselves and their families. They are on-call barbers, babysitters, driveway mechanics, house cleaners, handymen, street performers and sidewalk vendors.

But operating in the informal economy brings with it significant risks to life and liberty. Not only are informal economic activities often criminalized, creating a risk of reincarceration for people, but they also create police contact that has proved deadly. Eric Garner and Alton Sterling, both formerly incarcerated, were killed by police for working in the informal economy, one selling loose cigarettes and the other CDs.

At my organization Equity and Transformation, we work to restore the dignity of workers in the informal economy who are disproportionately Black and brown and have criminal convictions. We understand the struggle to make enough to pay rent and keep food on the table when ostracized by the formal job market, and we work to bring those struggles and the people with them to the forefront of employment policies.

The bottom line is that our economy loves free Black labor but won’t pay for freed Black labor. And it’s time that all changes from the root.

Whether part of the formal, informal or prison economy, all labor should be equitably compensated and protected from abuse. And the responsibility to end the exploitation of Black and brown labor falls on all of us.

This Juneteenth, which marks the end to formal slavery in the U.S., let’s look back to where this all started and finally end the exception in the 13th Amendment. There is legislation in Congress, Senate Joint Resolution 21 and House Joint Resolution 53, that would do just that, and the time to pass it is now.

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