Despite what the Constitution says, we never really abolished slavery in America. Currently, a segment of the American population are forced to work for $0.25 or $0.35 an hour, making them effectively cheaper than 3rd world factory workers and illegal immigrants. Housed and fed by taxpayer dollars, this captive workforce is certainly in no danger of starving from starvation wages. Deprived of the rights we like to take for granted, American prisoners have 2 “choices”: work for less than a bag of peanuts, or endure solitary confinement until they see the error of their ways.
Despite this apparent violation of human rights, many everyday Americans remain unmoved and apathetic to the plight of prisoners. Most of them undoubtedly think that prisoners don’t deserve any rights or privileges, and that this is simply just desserts for committing crimes and breaking the law. Of course, this simplistic view glosses over several important factors, such as:
- the racist justice system that disproportionately incarcerates the black, the brown, and poor
- the antiquated and punitive drug laws that destroy the lives and futures of non-violent offenders
- the inconvenient fact that between 2.3% to 5% of all current American prisoners are innocent, which is the inevitable result of police error/corruption, overzealous prosecutors, and institutional inertia
There are other dubious assumptions and values that I won’t be getting into, because I want to focus on the cost of punishment as an institution, and how it negatively affects even the rule-followers and the “non-criminals” among us. I won’t belabor the humanitarian and moral reasons for outlawing prison labor, as I feel they are self evident to those who already believe in basic human dignity. Instead, I want to examine the price we pay for supporting a sociopolitical system that condemns a specific class of its citizens to institutional slavery for private profit.
For argument’s sake, let’s suppose that every prisoner really is guilty, was fairly represented and convicted, and justly sentenced and confined. Should you still be concerned and outraged about their plight as legalized slave labor?
YES–and here are some self-centered, perfectly logical reasons why prison slavery is bad for everyone (except for the companies that stand to profit, of course):
- Because your tax dollars pay for the employees/slaves’ living expenses (housing, food, medical care, etc.), privately held companies can afford to grossly underpay them. This results in outsized profits, which are funneled to their shareholders and corporate officers. As a member of the hoi polloi and a non-shareholder, you do not get any portion of the profits, despite the fact that your taxes were used by the company to subsidize the cost of their labor and pad their profit margins.
- As a non-prisoner, you have to pay for your own living expenses (ah, the cost of freedom). Unfortunately, the cost of living has gone up despite the tanking economy. Rent is at an all time high. The grocery bill for a family of 2 will usually range between $350 to $700 for just one month. The electric company also doesn’t accept IOU’s or hugs and kisses in lieu of payment. Given this stark reality, you simply can’t afford to compete with an “employee” who works for $0.25 an hour. And you thought illegal immigrants and 3rd world factory workers were tough competition.
- Unless the job requires high tech skills and education, they can be done just as efficiently by a prisoner. Call centers for customer service, telemarketing, and vacation reservations are already staffed by American convicts, who can also speak with an American accent (an added bonus for companies who want to avoid negative reactions from xenophobic customers). Merchandise packaging/shipping, food processing, clothing/fabric manufacturing, and fruit picking are also being done by prisoners, who have proven themselves to be even more compliant and desperate than the typical garden variety migrant or sweatshop worker.
- The police are becoming increasingly brutal and abusive with the people they “serve and protect”. This means that even you, the rule-following non-criminal, can get railroaded by the very system you ostensibly support. This is especially true if you are not rich or connected, which is the situation for the vast majority of Americans regardless of skin color. As no system is perfect, an innocent person is bound to get incarcerated sooner or later, even under the most stringent procedures. And yes, this could be you under the wrong circumstances.
We officially abolished slavery with the 13th amendment in 1865. Corporations were granted personhood and basic human rights in 1886. Currently, corporations are allowed to flout the 13th amendment, while flesh and blood persons continue to be prohibited from doing so. Clearly, not all persons are created equal under the law.
When we permit the enslavement of prisoners, we are dismissing a segment of society in the belief that we are somehow safe from having to live their fate. While this may be true for most Americans (for now), this is no way to organize a society–especially one that fancies itself as the most free and democratic nation in the world (which has not been true for quite some time).
This is not a blanket argument against punishment. I believe, just like most of my fellow citizens, that proper forms of punishment are necessary in maintaining justice and fairness. But given the state of the nation, we have to ask ourselves: why are we so willing to diminish ourselves for the privilege of pushing those below us farther down the ladder?