How Prison Labor Is the New American Slavery

by Sara Burrows, June 13, 2016, via Return to Now

If you buy products or services from any of the 50 companies listed below (and you likely do), you are supporting modern American slavery.

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.
With 5 percent of the world’s population and 25 percent of the world’s prison population, the United States has the largest incarcerated population in the world.  No other society in history has imprisoned more of its own citizens.  There are half a million more prisoners in the U.S. than in China, which has five times our population.  Approximately 1 in 100 adults in America were incarcerated in 2014.  Out of an adult population of 245 million that year, there were 2.4 million people in prison, jail or some form of detention center.
The vast majority – 86 percent – of prisoners have been locked up for non-violent, victimless crimes, many of them drug-related.
Big Business is making big bucks off of prison labor:
While prison labor helps produce goods and services for almost every big business in America, here are a few examples from an article that highlights the epidemic:
Whole Foods – You ever wonder how Whole Foods can afford to keep their prices so low (sarcasm)? Whole Foods’ coffee, chocolate and bananas might be “fair trade,” but the corporation has been offsetting the “high wages” paid to third-world producers with not-so-fair-wages here in America.
The corporation, famous for it’s animal welfare rating system, apparently was not as concerned about the welfare of the human “animals” working for them in Colorado prisons until April of this year.
You know that $12-a-pound tilapia you thought you were buying from “sustainable, American family farms?”  It was raised by prisoners in Colorado, who were paid as little as 74 cents a day.  And that fancy goat cheese?  The goats were raised and milked by prisoners too.
McDonald’s – The world’s most successful fast food franchise purchases a plethora of goods manufactured in prisons, including plastic cutlery, containers, and uniforms.  The inmates who sew McDonald’s uniforms make even less money by the hour than the people who wear them.
Wal-Mart – Although their company policy clearly states that “forced or prison labor will not be tolerated by Wal-Mart,” basically every item in their store has been supplied by third-party prison labor factories.  Wal-Mart purchases its produce from prison farms, where laborers are often subjected to long hours in the blazing heat without adequate food or water.
Victoria’s Secret – Female inmates in South Carolina sew undergarments and casual-wear for the pricey lingerie company.  In the late 1990’s, two prisoners were placed in solitary confinement for telling journalists that they were hired to replace “Made in Honduras” garment tags with “Made in USA” tags.
AT&T – In 1993, the massive phone company laid off thousands of telephone operators—all union members—in order to increase their profits.  Even though AT&T’s company policy regarding prison labor reads eerily like Wal-Mart’s, they have consistently used inmates to work in their call centers since ’93, barely paying them $2 a day.
BP (British Petroleum) – When BP spilled 4.2 million barrels of oil into the Gulf coast, the company sent a workforce of almost exclusively African-American inmates to clean up the toxic spill while community members, many of whom were out-of-work fisherman, struggled to make ends meet.  BP’s decision to use prisoners instead of hiring displaced workers outraged the Gulf community, but the oil company did nothing to reconcile the situation.
The full list of companies implicated in exploiting prison labor includes:

Bank of America
John Deere
Eli Lilly and Company
Exxon Mobil
Johnson and Johnson
Koch Industries
Procter & Gamble
ConAgra Foods

While not all prisoners are “forced” to work, most “opt” to because life would be even more miserable if they didn’t, as they have to purchase pretty much everything above the barest necessities (and sometimes those too) with their hard-earned pennies. Some of them have legal fines to pay off and families to support on the outside. Often they come out more indebted than when they went in.
Prison farms” aka “modern plantations” 
In places like Texas, prison work is mandatory and unpaid — the literal definition of slave labor.
According the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, prisoners start their day with a 3:30 a.m. wake-up call and are served breakfast at 4:30 a.m. All prisoners who are physically able are required to report to their work assignments by 6 a.m.
“Offenders are not paid for their work, but they can earn privileges as a result of good work habits,” the website says.
Most prisoners work in prison support jobs, like cooking, cleaning, laundry, and maintenance, but about 2,500 of them work in the Texas prison system’s own “agribusiness department,” where they factory-farm 10,000 beef cattle, 20,000 pigs and a quarter million egg-laying hens. The prisoners also produce 74 million pounds of livestock feed per year, 300,000 cases of canned vegetables, and enough cotton to clothe themselves (and presumably others). They also work at meat packaging plants, where they process 14 million pounds of beef and 10 million pounds of pork per year.
farm prison labour
While one of the department’s stated goals is to reduce operational costs by having prisoners produce their own food, the prison system admittedly earns revenue from “sales of surplus agricultural production.”
Prisoners who refuse to work – again, unpaid – are placed in solitary confinement. When asked if Texas prisons still employ “chain gangs” in the FAQ section, the department responds:
“No, Texas does not use chain gangs. However, offenders working outside the perimeter fence are supervised by armed correctional officers on horseback.”
Similar “prison farms” exist in Arizona, Alabama, Alaska, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Louisiana, Mississippi, Ohio and other states, where prisoners are forced to work in agriculture, logging, quarrying and mining. Wikipedia says while the agricultural goods produced on prison farms is generally used to feed prisoners and other wards of the state (orphanages and asylums) they are also sold for profit.
In addition to being forced to labor directly for the profit of the government, inmates may be “farmed out” to private enterprises, through the practice of convict leasing, to work on private agricultural lands or related industries (fishing, lumbering, etc.). The party purchasing their labor from the government generally does so at a steep discount from the cost of free labor.


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Rajeev Saxena
Rajeev Saxena
Jul 31, 2017 1:49 PM

These are the same ones boycotted due to Israel connections? I am right ?

Jul 30, 2017 5:38 PM
Rev Peter Ratcliff
Rev Peter Ratcliff
Jul 28, 2017 9:45 PM

Punishment is not slavery. In the UK prisoners are rioting and running drug gangs and great evil is taking place which ruins them. I think something in between is called for. Fair work is certainly better and there is good reason that the prisoners should in some way pay toward the high cost of keeping them safe.

Jul 29, 2017 11:38 AM

You really did miss the point, didn’t you? Are there bad men in American prisons that need “correction”? Of course. Beyond that, the article is addresses the utter failure of the American Dream: the cynical abandonment of a redundant underclass; and their reappropriated role as human capital in the for-profit prison industrial complex. Modern slavery. The rentier financialized monopoly capitalist US economy doesn’t make anything: ergo, it does not need workers (wage slaves.) Out of each $20 the US makes, only $1 comes from the real economy (Michael Hudson). Rather than reduce profitability (or risk a broad church Civil Rights movement); entire generations will be returned to profitability via incarceration. Whether they work or not to relieve their boredom is ancillary: they are required to pay their way to society with their freedom. Exceptional? World leading freedoms? America is the world leading failed state by the measure of this epic… Read more »

Norman Pilon
Norman Pilon
Jul 30, 2017 6:28 AM

The good Reverend Ratcliff obviously understood little of what he read. He does seem to know, however, that only people who deserve to be in prison ever do end up in prison. It must be only a coincidence, too, that a society that formerly enslaved Africans in their millions, now incarcerates a vastly disproportionate number of the visible descendants of those selfsame slaves and continues to extract handsome profits out of “them” at essentially no cost, and all of this while the tax-payer guarantees to defray the cost of the convict’s keep if not also into the bargain a profit margin to the for-profit prison operators. Of course, if one takes into account the doctrine of ancestral sin, then it is true that all prisoners currently in prison, whether guilty or railroaded, should all rightly be in prison making reparations, working up a sweat to enrich our corporate masters. Let… Read more »

Jul 30, 2017 1:33 PM

An incredibly ignorant comment on the historical and current abuse of primarily black people, yet again. I wonder if it ever crossed your mind in your complacency and no doubt comfort, Rev Peter, that a huge percentage of these prisoners are locked up for using cannabis/ stealing food, small crimes done out of poverty and hunger [ cannabis, drug that has been legalised in huge swatches of the US and is currently used medicinally world wide]. For this young men are locked up to keep the corporate state in the style it has been getting used to for the past 50 yrs. Of course some deserve to be incarcerated for serious crimes but in the US you can be put away for so called crimes with the judges in the pocket of the corporations who ensure they are well rewarded for their treachery. If you are really a Reverent then… Read more »

Aug 3, 2017 8:12 AM

The Rev Peter is concerned that “great evil is taking place”. Perhaps he would be so kind as to deliver an exorcism?

Jul 28, 2017 1:20 PM

One is left with the distinct impression the American regime regards such slavery as lenient. Paper promises of the 19th century were but tactical deceptions. One only has to look at those systems stained by imperialism in order to understand why such horrors flourish. Willie Lynch, Jim Crow just go by other names these days.

Grazyna Bonati
Grazyna Bonati
Jul 27, 2017 8:19 PM

Apart from the prisoners being made to work in slave-like conditions, there are also many people who are held in the US and working as slaves in agriculture and other businesses. There are also slaves in many other countries – 37 million in the world today. Such a shameful situation, when slavery was abolished so long ago.

Norman Pilon
Norman Pilon
Jul 27, 2017 7:12 AM

Dear America, Though I express my personal opinion, only, I yet suspect that I speak what a great many others would: it’s not that we hate you for your freedom, but that your freedom, the only one that you trully praise and worship, is rank barbarisms, the absolute freedom of the “master” to dispose of his “chattel” as his whims have ever taken him. Your legal system, a form of legal practice as primitive as any that has ever existed, is everywhere surpassed: it is a system in which “justice” is a la carte — to plagiarize a passage by Samir Amin — wherein the judge creates the law, always rendering “verdicts” in good conscience(!!!), “verdicts” that only always incidentally favor the rich, are mostly known in advance, and tend always also to be extremely brutal and racist in effect. What’s not to love about America, the land of unreserved… Read more »

Jul 27, 2017 6:56 AM

In one of her several dreary books, Hillary Clinton talked about how in Arkansas, the governor’s mansion (where she and Bill lived when he was governor) was staffed by prison inmates. Her main concern was worry that the black male prisoners who slaved for the Clintons might be violent.

Jul 26, 2017 2:52 PM

Just yesterday I was having a discussion about (mainstream) hip-hop artists and other contemporary cultural models. I argued that there was a hidden hand that consciously created such nocuous role models for the youth: singers pointing their guns at the cameras reciting misogynistic, violent lyrics and bragging about their crimes; oversexed “teen stars”, giving the idea that the best way for young women to express their sexuality is by being vulgar and submissive to this kind of aggressive men. My friend argued that, on the contrary, that we had such things because that is what people like, and that the market just reflects and adapts to that fact. But as I am reading this article I wonder: are there perhaps a couple of record company owners (or friends thereof) that have “ventured” also in the business of slave labour? Because for me it is becoming clear that it is not… Read more »

Jul 26, 2017 4:53 PM
Reply to  M.

Intrigued by my own question I did a little research and the answer is: of course (I bet you are all very much surprised).
-“The largest holder in Corrections Corporation of America is Vanguard Group Incorporated. Vanguard is the third largest holder in both Viacom and Time Warner
-The number-one holder of both Viacom and Time Warner is a company called Blackrock. Blackrock is the second largest holder in Corrections Corporation of America”

Jul 26, 2017 1:27 PM

Reblogged this on Worldtruth and commented: Being deprived of one’s liberty is one thing and I don’t believe in giving prisoners an “easy ride”, but this kind of “for profit” use and abuse of inmates rights is a deprivation too far. No wonder the US overcrowds it’s prisons – it’s such a lucrative industry. That so many big “fat cat” billion dollar corporations and business names take advantage of this scurrilous and totally unscrupulous activity speaks much to their total lack of any morals or integrity. Twelve and more of the names listed are available here in the UK. Some of whom I can boycott and will as a result of this published information. I already boycott goods from Israel since I learned of Soda Club’s (Schweppes) and HP’s involvement in that State, so adding a few more to my list is no hardship. There is no law, yet, nor… Read more »

Bex West
Bex West
Jul 26, 2017 2:56 PM
Reply to  mohandeer

Did you notice many of them are the same ones boycotted due to Israel connections? The rabbit-hole goes deeper and deeper…

Jul 29, 2017 5:03 PM
Reply to  Bex West

Dear Bex that is in fact a Rat hole.

Jun 11, 2018 7:53 AM
Reply to  Bex West

Intriguing. Why the connection, do you think?

Jul 26, 2017 1:11 PM

Seems that in the completely surreal world that is Modern ‘Murka, in order to find work, one has to commit a crime and the easiest way to do that is to be in possession of x amount of illegal drugs over the maximum amount permissible (even if that is zero) for personal use. Whereas if you stay out of trouble, you’re still unemployed.

Jul 26, 2017 5:13 PM
Reply to  Jen

Yep, it’s such a profitable business model, Uncle Sam even supplies the drugs!

Jul 26, 2017 12:50 PM

In America, Black slavery was “abolished” on paper in 1865 – but never practiced in southern states. After WWII, it instead expanded – involving White and Asian folks – while in prisons, in sex industry or as a low-paid employees. It’s over US$150 billion annual business which American elites cannot afford to ban. American historian and author Dr. Craig Steven Wilder (MIT) in his book, Ebony & Ivy: Race, Slavery and, the Troubled History of America’s Universities, says that almost all Ivy League Universities (Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Brown, Rutgers, Williams, Dartmouth, and University of North Carolina) – are drenched in the sweat and sometimes the blood of Africans brought to the United States as slaves. As long as the Americans live under a Capitalist monetary system, such slavery will continue. Professor Robert Jensen in 2007 book, “Getting Off: Pornography and the End of Masculinity” has attacked Capitalism and Church being… Read more »

Jul 26, 2017 12:42 PM

Sucks, for sure! Certainly qualities America in the ‘regime’ category of government with so many of its citizens behind bars…

Dead World Walking
Dead World Walking
Jul 26, 2017 12:30 PM

The US plutocrats would have to be some of the most evil, arrogant and ruthless bastards that have ever drawn breath.
Their underlings are no better.

Jul 26, 2017 12:26 PM

Ironic Labour Source from the Land of the Brave & the Free !

Jul 26, 2017 12:09 PM

Reblogged this on leruscino.