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Amy McMullen

Amy McMullen
Gold Canyon, Arizona, USA
January 01
Amy McMullen is an activist for human rights, social and economic justice and a blogger and political essayist currently residing in Arizona. Her main interests are anti-racism, immigrant rights, LBGTQ equality, health justice and women's rights. She has worked to remove the worst of the anti-immigrant, Tea Party politicians from office in Arizona and advocates to get progressives elected. Amy's former incarnations include back-to-the-land counter culturist in the 70s, small business entrepreneur, Bed and Breakfast proprietor, charter boat captain, EMT, medical assistant and rehabber of distressed homes.. She currently volunteers for the Phoenix Urban Health Collective as a street medic and is on the board of a new nonprofit devoted to providing free medical care for the uninsured and under-insured in Phoenix. Amy's writings on social justice and other subjects appear in Truthout, Salon, Addicting Info, The Tucson Sentinel, The Pragmatic Progressive and on her blog at Open Salon.

Editor’s Pick
DECEMBER 8, 2011 12:49PM

Slavery: Alive and Well in the US, Sponsored by ALEC

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Protest against ALEC in Arizona  Photo-Amy McMullen 

Protest against ALEC in Arizona  

"The 13th Amendment, when it abolished slavery, did so except for convicts. Through the prison system, the vestiges of slavery have persisted." ~ Angela Davis

Every now and then we get a piece of information that makes us sit up and take notice.  My moment came recently when reading up on prison labor in the United States.

We all know that prisoners work while they are incarcerated.  Aside from the familiar task of making license plates, there are still chain gangs employed throughout the south and several states have explored the use of prison labor to work the agricultural fields after Latino immigrants fled the tough immigration laws enacted in some southern states, namely Georgia and Alabama.

We may also know that prisoners are often paid, albeit very little money for their labor.  But how many realize that that by nature of being in prison, as mandated by our Constitution, prisoners could be compelled or even forced to work and that payment is entirely optional?

And how many of us know that our Constitution specifically states that prisoners are slaves?

Yes, slaves.

The Thirteenth Amendment was enacted to end slavery in this country but what most people do not realize is that it never ended slavery for those who are incarcerated.  The language is very clear in Section 1 (emphasis mine):

“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.”

Those are chilling words to read in what most of us hold up to be an infallible document—the highest law of the land.  Even more disturbing is that this Amendment was used to carry on the legacy of slavery in the south in a most horrible fashion long after the Civil War was over and, it can be argued, is still being used to justify slave labor today.

An overlooked part of our history is that the southern states capitalized on the prison slavery loophole in the Thirteenth Amendment for many years when they incarcerated and farmed out as prison labor vast numbers of mostly African Americans during the Convict Lease System, which was in place from 1846 to 1928.

Under the Convict Lease System,  southern blacks were arrested for minor “crimes," such as vagrancy, and were imprisoned in a hugely corrupt, violent and unjust system of forced labor for private businesses, including plantation owners and railroad and coal mining companies.  As the writer Douglas A. Blackmon wrote of the system:

"It was a form of bondage distinctly different from that of the antebellum South in that for most men, and the relatively few women drawn in, this slavery did not last a lifetime and did not automatically extend from one generation to the next. But it was nonetheless slavery – a system in which armies of free men, guilty of no crimes and entitled by law to freedom, were compelled to labor without compensation, were repeatedly bought and sold, and were forced to do the bidding of white masters through the regular application of extraordinary physical coercion."

Finally, in 1928 after a highly publicized death by flogging of a young man named Martin Tabert-- a slave convict whose original crime was riding a freight train-- the Convict Lease System was dismantled, not because of a change to the Constitution, but because it became politically untenable to allow it to continue.

But profiting off of prison labor has never gone away and now, thanks to ALEC (the American Legislative Exchange Council – an organization of global corporations and legislators who meet behind closed doors to write laws to benefit corporations) it is now once again the status quo to take financial advantage of US prison labor.

Through cleverly worded ALEC sponsored legislation, namely the Prison Industries Enhancement Certification Program  and the Prison Industries Act, state, federal and private prisons can use prisoners to labor in many different jobs to bring in more money to support the prison and, in the case of private prisons, to increase the corporation’s bottom line.

Companies hiring prison labor through ALEC-created laws pay minimum wage but the prisons deduct large portions of these wages for not only incarceration costs, but to go towards profits and building new prisons while they often give the prisoners just pennies per hour for their work.

This, coupled with other prison-friendly ALEC legislation such as Arizona’s immigration law, SB1070, the “Three Strikes” laws as well as the infamous “War on Drugs," serves to increase incarceration rates so as to guarantee a large involuntary “workforce."   Along with a push by right wing governors like Scott Walker of Wisconsin to demolish union held public sector jobs and replace them with prison labor, we’re seeing a very ominous turn of events happening:

It’s known as the Prison Industrial Complex and it’s a multi-billion dollar industry.

It’s also a fact that the prison system is inherently racist in its makeup.  As law professor and writer Michelle Alexander has famously noted in her pivotal bookThe New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, there are now more African Americans in prison and on parole than were slaves in 1850.  This is yet another indication that slavery, in a disturbing manifestation of its old form, is still very much alive and well.

Another throwback to slavery is the fact that convicted felons also have their right to vote taken away.  Even those who have done their time and paid their price to society often never fully regain their civil rights and 5.3 million people in the USA remain disenfranchised today.

Some may be under the impression that prison labor is voluntary but this isn’t true in many places.  The law in various states requires all able bodied prisoners to work and some say that they are compelled to work punishing hours even if they are unable, as is anecdotally evidenced in this letter from a female inmate who was forced to work in the fields of Martori Farms in Arizona :

“Ok it’s about my job.  I work on a work crew for Martori Farms.  We work 6 days a week for 8 hrs.  It’s a mandatory overtime job.  We work the fields hoeing weeds and thinning plants currently until it’s harvest time then it will be 12 hrs a day.  It’s insane.  Currently we are forced to work in the blazing sun for 8 hrs.  Many times we run out of water several times a day.  We ran out of sunscreen several times a week.  They don’t check medical backgrounds or ages before they pull women for these jobs.  Many of us cannot do it! And if we stop working and sit on the bus or even just take an unauthorized break we get a MAJOR ticket which takes away our “good time”!"

While the defenders of prison labor legislation may argue that this type of forced work builds a strong work ethic in criminals I would counter that slave labor is never good labor.  If prisoners want to work then it should be voluntarily and they should be paid a fair wage, not forcibly compelled to be income generators for those who have incarcerated them.  Furthermore, any system that incentivizes locking people up for profit to get cheap exploitable labor is inherently evil.  Period.

It’s considered bad practice and immoral to import goods made with slave labor from other countries.  There are often boycotts enacted against products like chocolate or Indian rugs that are known to utilize slaves in their production.   Given this, I’m sure most would be shocked to hear that we have legalized slavery in our prison systems and that products created right here at home may be slave-produced—everything from breaded chicken patties to guided missile parts to office furniture. How is it that we’re disgusted and repelled when we hear that China uses prison slave labor and yet we ignore it when it happens on our own soil?

Lacking a change to the Constitution (something that is never easy to do) the only recourse we have against prison slavery is through the court of public opinion.  There is one argument out there that private prisons’ use of captive labor to fatten their coffers may not be Constitutional after all but that’s a case that has yet to be made before the Supreme Court.

One thing I do know is that it’s time to wake up to the fact that our flawed Thirteenth Amendment has allowed corporations to reinstate their version of a Convict Lease System in order to accumulate vast wealth for those at the very top.

Because of ALEC-created laws that are designed to incarcerate more and more people and our failed War on Drugs, we now shamefully have the largest prison population in the entire world, over 2.2 million human beings.  These are people who are nothing more than slaves.

And that’s just wrong.

 “For private business, prison labor is like a pot of gold.  No strikes. No union organizing. No health benefits, unemployment insurance or workers’ compensation to pay.  No language barriers, as in foreign countries.  New leviathan prisons are being built on thousands of eerie acres of factories inside the walls.  Prisoners do data entry for Chevron, make telephone reservations for TWA, raise hogs, shovel manure, make circuit boards, limousines, waterbeds, and lingerie for Victoria’s Secret—all at a fraction of the cost of “free labor”

~quote from Eve Goldberg and Linda Evans from Masked Racism: Reflections of the Prison Industrial Complex by Angela Davis


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useful, wd. but you can't kill an ant swarm with a sword. america is beyond hope, leave if you can.
You should forward you rpost to, Glenn Greenwald (Salon) and Eric Alterman (The Nation). One of them might have an interest in highlighting this to a greater audience.
Thanks for bringing this into OS view. Corpgov at its finest!
Thank you for this. It deserves greater audience. Today at an education luncheon I heard the stat about the US having a greater percentage of its citizens incarcerated than any country in the world. We were stunned. When I was in college in the 70's I heard speculation/fear that the government was going to figure out a way to enslave black people again. I was one who said that would never happen. How dumb was I?
This is disturbing information, Amy. An ominous situation. Thanks for bringing it to our attention.
Anyone who's been out of work for months and just can't seem to find a job, any job, no matter what should read articles like this and find out why.

Thanks for writing about this.
Thanks for writing about this.
How disturbing, yet something we all must take notice to TODAY...thank you...
I am stunned by this information and ashamed to say that much of it is news to me. You are a solid writer with important things to say. It has been a long time since I read a post more deserving of an EP.

Unbelievable. What next? Sometimes it really does seem like we are living in the most corrupt nation on earth.
Rated. This is terrific.
It's just too easy to forget about those who find themselves incarcerated. They deserve whatever they get, right? Except for the corruption, racism, forced labor and slave wages. Thanks for shining a light here.
I'm stunned and had no idea at all any of this was taking place...I'm just stunned.
This is one more instance of the overarching danger to our nation; corporate control of all branches of government. R
You connect all of the dots very well here. Of all of the functions that can be privatized, I think that privatizing prisons results in the worst abuses. It threatens freedom in the most fundamental sense.
America has never given up its addiction to slave labor. The poor and working poor are no better off than the prisoners - and no less a prisoner in their lives. The weight of all this is reaching a tipping point and when it crashes the pain will be felt by everyone - as it needs to be.
All I can say is that most inmates are WAITING for work detail. How many do you know personally. As far as work without water, no one is for that, but honestly.... prison has very limited ways one can feel human. Of all of the incarcerated people I know, they love their work detail. In theory, a good article. We work closely with the prison pop...I think human rights infringement isn't found here. Check out bathroom and plumbing problems, if you want to talk about the constitution.
@Princess, I suggest you check out the number of suicides within the walls. In Arizona we're at twice the national average. Also prisoners are denied vital medical attention as well as numerous other human needs because the prisons are cutting expenses to further their profits.

I never said prisoners didn't want to work, of course the option of working is almost always better than sitting inside but that's not the point of my article. My point is that instead of working to better themselves and obtain good job skills and getting rewarded in ways that actually reinforce their industrious behavior, they are working as slaves to better the corporation or state that is exploiting them for profit. Maybe you're ok with this, but I'm not.

As I said, slave labor is never good labor and it doesn't take too much of an imagination to figure out better, more humane and moral ways to treat those who are incarcerated in this country. And from a strictly moral standpoint, profiting off human misery should be illegal. Right now we have corporations that not only profit from it, they figure out ways to incarcerate more people to make them richer.
Brazen - are you talking about the U.S. or South Africa?

I know a little about the Canadian system, where inmates vie for jobs - but those jobs aren't chain-gangs. Unfortunately the current government has shut down the prison farms, where inmates could do work on the prison farm, not other people's farms, and they enjoyed that. The inmates here can work if they like or sit around all day if they like (work gets them more credits towards parole).

“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's pretty scary.

And the use of convicts, mostly black, to work southern fields is so notorious that we in the frozen north have heard of it. (Of course, we hear of and cluck over many American failings...)
You wanna talk slave labor…let’s talk slave labor.

The machines our advanced technology affords us…are slaves. The computers, the robots, the other mechanized devices are all slaves. And we have recently imported hundreds of billions of these slaves to do the work we use to pay humans to do.

Then we sit around wondering why there are so few jobs that pay a decent wage!

And the “grunt work” the “slaves” do is not just the “dig ditches and do production work like putting cars together” kind of grunt work. Remember when every corporation had large steno pools…filled with (mostly) women who earned a decent salary doing the kind of stuff the slaves do now. Almost everything is grunt work if a machine can be devised to do it.

Yeah, you have a point here, Amy…and like so many other commentators, I thank you for shining a light on it. But the real “slave” problem in our world right now is much more subtle and nuanced than taking advantage of prisoners.

We’ve “intelligently designed” our society so that machines are built to make life easier for humans…and now we consider that predicament to be horrendous. We can either continue to moan about it…or start to take advantage of it.
Frank - excellent point, and one I've been thinking about: we have to re-think our whole society. Probably little thinking will go into it - it'll just evolve, probably painfully, like the industrial revolution et al. We want modern conveniences, but we also want jobs...or at least income and activity. For a lot of people, jobs in the old sense won't be happening. So some other arrangements have to happen. I think the Occupy camps had some (false?) starts on this...
Here in Florida it is common to see signs along the road, " CAUTION, convicts working".
Almost all our roadwork and brush cleanup is done by prisoners, who do not get paid for their labor. They are given time off for good behavior instead.
In Florida it is also required of prisoner, to pay for their incarceration, when they do work. This can be applied to that, but not at normal pay rates.
Just to clarify, I agree with your point that prison conditions are appalling. I was kind of playing the devil's advocate about the "freedoms" that work detail offers. Lots of inhumanity in prisons in general. Myriad, I am talking about the US, but as Amy points out, I am unfamiliar with the state system in AZ, so I will accept your invitation to research. Overall, an article worth reading, which is why I commented and rated.... :))
"there are now more African Americans in prison and on parole than were slaves in 1850. This is yet another indication that slavery, in a disturbing manifestation of its old form, is still very much alive and well."

Dear. God. Thanks for drawing attention to this!
While well thought out, my immediate response is yu are not xactly wrong, but you are not exactly right, either.... I mean yes, you can stand on your soap box and moralize about what you judge to be an injustice, but while well thought out, ( within the VERY narrow definition of your lexicon.) you are missing at least one ( if not more.) bigger points.
I have long said that prison labor was a racket, and those companies that have accessed prison labor have hit the mother lode I mean come on, REALLY cheap labor, no unemployment taxes, you don't have to pay healthcare benefits, or anything, I mean CHA-CHING!!
But then, you step back and look at the bigger picture, and a different image might emerge.
es, the inmates doing these jobs might seem horrible, but what is the alternative?
Do you know any inmates? I have and let me tell you, the single biggest that must be fought every day, is boredom.
And frankly, it would be the single biggest threat to inmate safety and the thing that guards fear the most.
Yes, prison labor can be railed against, but really, what is the alternative?..Inmates spending heir days lying in their cots?
Lock them down 24/7?
THAT would be inhumane...And to leave them with days with nothing to do would leave to a huge increase in prison violence and suicide.
So what would your solution?
now you are going to raise the possibility of some panacea, an idealized perfect solution, but the fact is that ANY solution you posit will have to make sense fiscally, so no, prisoners cannot just start making things for charity, etc..while change is needed, but you will have to pay for it..
THAT is your biggest problem.
Good Luck..
@Cedar, you missed my point. See my comment further up the thread where I address this same issue.
Great article! I'm about 100 pages into Michelle Alexander's book, and I am disgusted by the information she shares. 1 in 31 American adults are currently in prison, on probation, or on parole! Not to mention the insane disproportionate race representation...I always knew that the prison system was racist, but never thought that it was so INTENTIONAL. Not even my most cynical thoughts went in that direction. This is information that must be shared. Thanks.
BTW, shared on my Facebook wall : )
What a load of crap! The prison population consists of habitual and hardened unemployed entitlement hounds ranging from welfare second and third generation demo-babies to illegal aliens to people who consider themselves too smart to work for a living. Good, hard work is the best therapy for this derelict populous. Go find a tree to hug or whale to save moron.

Prison and jails are big business. This allows law enforcement and judges , and others in the system, to do what they will to keep the businesses afloat. If it means seeking out warm bodies who have comitted no crime -- Sure, why not. This can't all be a conspiracy but more likely-- the bad eggs and the complacent ones in union, and before you know it the whole system is rot.
Years ago I simply wouldn't be able to digest this in any meaningful way. But, since I fell into the system, for a while, I absolutely believe anything .I feel sure that such things would happen in a system that only pays lip service to the Constitution. I believe we must occupy this "legal system" before Wall Street. With such corruption and injustice in the courts and prisons-- what chance do we have to have any real America?
JO, you sound exactly like Ignatius J. Reilly...can't be real. Funny, though. Do more characters!
I have no problem with justly convicted criminals being asked to work during their custody. The operative word there is "justly".

Some caveats apply.....
1- They must be sound of body and mind to qualify
2- They should be paid minimum wage
3- 20% of their earnings should be set aside as "release" money so they don't come out and need to immediately go on welfare
4- The balance of their earnings should FIRST go to PAYING FULL RESTITUTION to their victims, second to paying for their own upkeep - including "rent"
5- A portion should go into paying something towards the cost of policing, courts, court appointed attorneys, prisons, etc.
6- A citizen's watchdog committee be struck to oversee all aspects of this practice. It should have full authority to enforce humane standards immediately and fully at any time in any institution involved with prisoners, including private companies
7- That the labour they perform be socially valuable - no matter whose ox gets gored - and that, as much as possible it provide training that will be useful to post prison employment
8- That it be combined with educational up-grading
9- That those convicts who opt not to work be required to pay the same costs as working convicts. If they can do so from their own resources well and good. Society is the beneficiary no matter the source of the felon's funds.
10- That the convicts, guards, and prison management be allowed to organize representative committees to present any grievances they have to the citizen's watchdog committee.

I may be all wet here but it seems to me that the keys to making the prison system work for EVERYBODY is to be found in Restitution, Rehabilitation, Education, and Opportunity to grow and develop. Certainly we can all see that using the prison system for "punishment" hasn't worked worth a damn.

Being tough o crime is a successful strategy for politicians, so we see sentences being lengthened, sentencing guidelines made tougher...
Money for alternative sentencing is being cut, leading to warehousing of inmates, making them available to be used for private labor.