Their happy face on prison labor

May 9, 2011

The New York City chapter of the Campaign to End the Death Penalty published this statement in response to a recent New York Times article about prison labor.

A RECENT article in the New York Times on prison labor illustrates what's wrong with the way the mainstream media presents prison labor and mass incarceration in the U.S.

The Campaign to End the Death Penalty-NYC denounces prison exploitation and calls for an end to slave wages behind bars.

The article entitled "Enlisting Prison Labor to Close Budget Gaps," by Robbie Brown and Kim Severson, published on February 24, 2011, by the New York Times, depicts a false and dangerous image of inmate labor in the U.S.

The article presents a series of quotes by various sources and a vignette of prison field labor at a Florida farm, most of which seem to be used as arguments in support of the practice. Nowhere in the 1,255-word piece did the writers evoke even the possibility that forcing prisoners to work for no pay or pennies per hour might be exploitative, let alone a massive human rights violation.

Prison labor is slavery by definition under the U.S. Constitution. The 13th Amendment states that "[n]either 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."

An inmate at work in a prison labor shop
An inmate at work in a prison labor shop

The 13th Amendment, in other words, is only a partial ban on slavery. The U.S. imprisons more people than any other government in the world. It is well documented that African Americans are drastically over-represented and whites under-represented behind bars relative to their actual crime rates.

Inmates are usually punished if they refuse to work. The average of the maximum wages paid to state prisoners is $4.73 per day and the maximum pay of federal prisoners is $1.15 per hour. Those amounts are before reductions for restitutions and fines, and some states pay nothing. Inmates are not protected by most federal safety and health standards like other workers and have no right to unionize.

Sadly, instead of explaining these realities, the writers choose to expound on the boon prison labor has meant for fiscal conservatism, allowing states to cut human services and jobs under the guise of a "budget crisis." They quote financial experts and former commissioners of the New York City Department of Correction (including Michael P. Jacobson, director of the Vera Institute of Justice, whom the article failed to identify as a former commissioner.)

The article also notably makes no mention of the seven-day prisoner strike that took place across 10 prisons in Georgia this past December. The prison strike was the largest in U.S. history, in which inmates across racial, religious and gang affiliations acted in unity to demand just parole decisions, a living wage for their labor, access to families, educational opportunities, nutritional meals and other human rights.

However, such an event was not worth mentioning in an article about prison labor in the view of the New York Times.

WE REJECT attempts like this one to put a happy face on inmate labor, which we find similar to antebellum writings defending slavery. Note the bucolic terms in which a pro-slavery novel published in 1852 describes an enslaved African's living quarters: "It had, besides the vegetable plot in the rear, a neat little flower garden in front, where Aunt Vi'let, his wife, delighted to cultivate certain favorite gaudy plants."

Compare this excerpt to the opening line of the February 24 article:

Before he went to jail, Danny Ivey had barely seen a backyard garden. But here he was, two years left on his sentence for grand theft, bent over in a field, snapping wide, green collard leaves from their stems. For the rest of the week, Mr. Ivey and his fellow inmates would be eating the greens he picked.

So enamored are the writers of this article of the idea of putting prisoners to work in the fields, they actually assert that inmates with plantation experience gain "marketable skills as fieldworkers"--a true absurdity, given the conditions of poverty facing migrant farmworkers. According to the United Farm Workers union, about a third of farmworkers earn less than $7.25 per hour.

Finally, the authors also fail to mention that, regardless of however many job skills an inmate may manage to acquire through prison labor, former prisoners face a life time of legally sanctioned discrimination by employers for their conviction status upon their release.

Prison labor in the U.S. and the prison system overall are rooted in slavery. The Campaign to End the Death Penalty stands for the end of the exploitation of prison labor and the U.S. policy of mass incarceration as a whole.

Thanks to Heather Stepanek for preparing this statement.

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