It is said that no one truly knows a nation until one has been inside its jails. A nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens, but its lowest ones.
Slavery can be considered as one of the darkest periods in American history. To limit the freedom of an individual or a particular social group was considered normal behavior in the past. As time passed, these groups had the need – through movements and revolutions – to fight back and reclaim the freedom of which they had been completely deprived for centuries. After numerous conflicts, slavery was finally abolished, or almost. With the Thirteenth Amendment, passed in Congress on 13th January 1865 – right after the American Civil War – it was made unconstitutional for someone to be held as a slave and freedom was given to all Americans, with a ‘small’ exception: criminals. The Thirteenth Amendment, in fact, enacts that “neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”
It is through a careful review that it is possible to understand that slavery was merely reformed, and even relocated into the domain of the criminal justice system and therefore legalized. Far from the end of slavery, the Thirteenth Amendment marks the continuation of slave culture within modern American society, making it legal to force inmates to work without pay in often very dangerous work programs. Prison labor can take place in many forms, and additionally it may have many other ‘hidden’ agendas. While most of the prison population is assigned to in-house tasks, such as cleaning dishes, doing laundry, maintaining grounds, and various other maintenance and upkeep jobs, many others (approximately six percent) are found in correctional industries that offer prison programs which aim to produce goods and services for the marketplace. This can range from farming or sewing clothes for known brands, to staffing call centers or fighting wildfires in California.
A very realistic insight into how the American prison system – and especially forced labor in prisons – works can be gained from several television shows all around the world. One of these is Orange is The New Black, an American series based on Piper Kerman’s memoir, Orange Is the New Black: My Year in a Women's Prison, about her experiences at a minimum-security federal prison after being found guilty of money laundering and drug trafficking. In the very first episode, Piper Chapman, the series' protagonist, is sitting in a van waiting to be transported to the women's prison where she will serve her 15-month sentence. The van's driver is fellow inmate Lorna Morello. Here, Chapman, who is clearly very surprised, asks Morello, "do they let you drive?" to which she responds "who else is going to? We do everything here.”
In theory, having prisoners work could be a good practice itself, as it prevents idleness, gives inmates a chance to earn money, and could even turn incarceration into an opportunity for job and social skills development. But the reality is quite different. For starters, courts have ruled that jail inmates are not covered by many of the nation's employment and labor laws, including the Fair Labor Standards Act, which means there are no minimum wage or overtime pay requirements for prison work. Therefore, while it is unclear whether prison labor benefits inmates, it is, on the contrary, abundantly evident that it contributes significantly to companies' bottom lines. In fact, prison labor is now being used to put companies at a comparative advantage over those that rely on the regular labor market. Furthermore, taxpayers actually subsidize prison companies to ‘employ’ prisoners because companies that pay inmates for their work can get up to 40% in tax refunds. This indisputably demonstrates that as of today, prison labor is one of the major reasons behind the multi-billion-dollar profit of the American prison system.