The American Prison System as a Perpetuation of Modern-Day Slavery

Social activist Angela Davis first introduced the idea of a prison industrial complex (PIC) in an impassioned and deeply analytical speech, declaring that “taking into account the structural similarities and profitability of business-government linkages in the realms of military production and public punishment, the expanding penal system can now be characterized as ‘a prison industrial complex.’” At its fundamental basis, the PIC is the ever-increasing incarceration rate in the United States occurring because of the push from private agencies towards the intentional utilization of cheap prison labor for profit.

Davis created this term to shine a light on the multidimensional socio-economic issues that contributed to the absurdly high imprisonment rate of black individuals. The major issue at hand was the pervasive and deep-seated systemic racism that influenced the justice system of Davis’ day.

Angela Davis delivered her speech in the fall of 1997, nearly two decades ago. Tragically, the same problems that plagued her society continue to afflict our modern-day society. Structural racism still characterizes the American prison system and has led to the unabated proliferation and expansion of the PIC.

On February 21, 2017, Attorney General Jeff Sessions declared his intent to endorse and restructure private prisons. In public and private prisons, the modern-day explicit and unabashed exploitation of inmates as a means of acquiring cheap labor is no secret.

Under the Federal Prison System, all inmates are required to work if they are “medically able.” Prisoners perform two types of labor. The first is typical prison work such as cleaning and kitchen or laundry duty; the prisoners are usually paid between 12 to 40 cents an hour. However, in Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, and Texas, prisoners are paid nothing for their labor. The second type of prison labor is contracted prison work. The Federal Prison Industries, euphemistically known as the correctional institute UNICOR, oversees a system that forces inmates from both public and private prisons to manufacture multitudes of products such as “mattresses, spectacles, road signs and body armour” for approximately only 90 cents an hour, as reported by The Economist. Additionally, 70-80% of the prisoners’ already minimal wages are deducted under the Prison Industry Enhancement Certification Program.

This exploitation of prison inmates becomes even more heinous when considering the disproportionate imprisonment and criminalization of minorities, especially African Americans. A recent study published by The Sentencing Project found that, based on data from the Bureau of Justice, “African Americans are incarcerated in state prisons at a rate that is 5.1 times the imprisonment of whites.” A 2017 study by the Prison Policy Initiative reported that 39% of the prison population are white while 40% prisoners are black. This is in sore contrast with America’s overall population where 64% is white and only 13% black.

This disparity of the prison population in the context of the American population highlights the prejudicial targeting of black individuals, which feeds the insatiable appetite of the PIC. The ACLU has recognized this and demonstrated how the Trump administration’s justice system unfairly targets and criminalizes black Americans and other minorities through tactics such as increased deportation of illegal immigrants and the increased effort on the war on drugs. These policies provide a steady supply of laborers to privatized and public prisons to such an extent that overcrowding is a large issue that prisons face nationwide.

This rapacious practice has been casually incorporated within our prison systems and is largely accepted as the norm. Now the Trump administration is endorsing the perpetuation of this system, as seen in Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ rescindment of the Obama-era decision to phase out privatized prisons, which are prisons that use inmates in contracted work for corporate profit. Because inmates have few rights, they are forced into low-paying or unpaid labor as a condition of their incarceration. This is not acceptable. Unpaid labor is slave labor. The 13th Amendment outlawed slave labor.

Well, the 13th amendment technically outlawed slave labor. There is one tiny loophole, one small inclusive condition within the amendment, that has led to the endurance of slavery in modern-day America. The 13th Amendment states 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.”

That interjection, “except as a punishment for crime,” enables the continued existence of slavery in America under the guise of legal unpaid labor in prisons. Slavery was not abolished. The cruel exploitation of black Americans for cheap and free labor was not abolished.

Because of high incarceration rates of minorities, black individuals and minorities are being disproportionately imprisoned and consequently enslaved. This practice, which is for the sole benefit of corporate profit, is incredibly widespread, and our president has made no move to put an end to this practice. In fact, he has done the opposite and enabled the continuation of prisoner exploitation in privatized prisons.

The PIC is only growing stronger now that it is has been set loose by the Trump administration. The evolution, or rather non-evolution of our justice system, has rebuilt the foundations of institutional slavery in the United States. The prison system is an unmistakable, living perpetuation of American slavery and of our shameful history of racism. In this great country we live in, this great archetype of freedom and liberty, there exists a very prevalent and reprehensible reality: slavery in America is not dead. It is alive and grossly thriving.