Slavery has had long a history in the United States, and while it’s believed that it was “abolished” by the 13th amendment, there is one clause that makes a major exception. The amendment prohibits slavery, “except as a punishment for crime,” wherein the issue lies. Modern-day slavery exists and is more commonly known as prison labor.
Prison Labor as Modern-Day Slavery
Prison labor exists on two different levels, both federal and state. The Federal Prison Industries (FPI) use prison labor to make many different things such as furniture and operate under the name UNICOR. Large corporations benefit from the existence of prison industrial complexes, though they do not all directly receive products from them.
Sheron Edwards who is actively incarcerated in Mississippi state prison has experienced prison labor on a federal and state level. Incarcerated in 1999 for an armed robbery case, Edwards’ case was brought before a federal magistrate that doubled his prison sentence. Having recently finished his sentence in federal prison, he has been working to reduce his second sentence in state prison with his legal team. His journey can be followed and supported by #freesheronedwards.
In federal prison, Edwards worked as a barber and a member of the suicide watch group. All of his jobs have been in-house labor, which are internal operations inside the institution. The jobs ranged from cleaning the bathrooms and floors to cooking. In a way, Edwards and the other incarcerated residents keep their “society within a society,” functioning day-to-day.
In federal prison, incarcerated individuals are paid, though the amount is a crime in and of itself. Incarcerated individuals can be paid as little as $0.23 an hour, and up to one dollar depending on how long they’ve been working a certain position. During his work as a barber, Edwards’s average workday would be from seven to three, with an hour lunch break. For his efforts, he would receive one dollar an hour. In state prison as a barber, he’s not paid at all.
One of the largest problems that Edwards notes is that incarcerated individuals are often paying the money they earned right back to the prison system in federal prison. Buying items from the commissary, and in some instances paying the prisons for an individual’s sentence are just some shameful ways that the prison system keeps its money circulating.
In many instances, incarcerated people do work that directly benefits large corporations. Wendy’s, Starbucks, Whole Foods, and Verizon are only a few examples of major companies that benefit from prison labor. Incarcerated individuals may process beef patties for fast food companies or provide telecommunication services for phone providers.
Consumers perpetuate this loop by continuing to pay for products that are made from prison labor, increasing the demand for such items. Protests against prison labor, and prison complexes appeared alongside Black Lives Matter, and police brutality protests this year. Because Black and Latinx people have much higher incarceration rates, these issues were deeply intertwined.
But Edwards makes it clear that prisons benefit corporations, simply by incarcerating people. Although Edwards’ work cutting hair doesn’t go directly into a corporation, another corporation owns the institution he’s incarcerated in. While one corporation sells his institution food, another sells them their commissary products and their clothing. His place in the system is part of a much larger chain that profits directly off of prisons, and policing.
Prison Labor and the Capitol Attack
Following the attack that took place at the state capitol, there is speculation that prison labor will be responsible for cleaning up the mess. After a demanding, and traumatic year for Black Lives Matter and police brutality protesters, the events that took place at the state capitol building were quite paradoxical.
White supremacists, Trump loyalists, and Proud Boys armed to the teeth stormed the state capitol building, without a single shot or push-back from the police. Adding insult to injury, Black, Brown, and Latinx workers cleaned it all up.
Policing and therefore the prison system disproportionately affect Black and Latinx men and women in America, perpetuating the existence of modern-day slavery. Incarcerated individuals will most likely be responsible for cleaning up the mess left by those who put them there. It can be wondered if prison labor will create any of the items that were destroyed in the capital attacks.
Prison Conditions and Senate Bill 2123
Edwards emphasizes the atrocious conditions that exist in the Mississippi prison complex, despite their high funding. With about 19,000 incarcerated individuals in the state institutions at a time, there is often overcrowding. Edwards recalls that when he was first brought in, he was given a space on the floor to sleep because there weren’t enough beds in his institution.
Senate Bill 2123 was proposed to provide more opportunities for incarcerated individuals to receive parole but ultimately did not pass. At this moment in time, the push to dismantle the police and prison system is at an all time, and the failure to pass bill 2123 could have changed many lives and relieved Mississippi prisons of some pressure.
Ultimately, prison labor is an extension of slavery that lives on in the US. While the descendants of those who fought so desperately to keep slavery alive continue to terrorize the country, incarcerated individuals continue to be responsible for their mess.