13th Amendment and the Prison Industrial Complex

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.

13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, Section 1

Over the past couple of years, there have been many conversations and projects that center mass incarceration and the thirteenth amendment of the United States Constitution. There’s Michelle Alexander’s book The New Jim Crow and Ava DuVernay’s documentary 13th to name just a couple. Celebrities like Matt McGorry and John Legend have helped to start conversations about these issues and support organizers that work to support incarcerated folks and change policy.

I was always taught that slavery ended with the end of the Civil War, with Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, and the ratification of the thirteenth amendment. And I’m willing to bet that I’m not the only one, as schooling here in the US generally tends to not provide a full context and understanding of history. This subject in school was always a whitewashed overview, just the bland highlights of a complicated and deeply contextual history.

All my history classes failed to provide a better and more accurate understanding about the abolition of slavery and related constitutional amendment. In reality, the language of the thirteenth amendment allows for slavery to continue in a different guise – those who are convicted of a crime are now used for incredibly cheap labor, often only making a few cents an hour.

This practice benefits more than a few people and corporations here in the United States. There are private prisons who make money off of the prisoners, both from the state and from developing ways to get those incarcerated there to spend the few dollars they actually make back on things in the prison. And if the money doesn’t come directly from the inmates, it might come from their families on the outside. Plus, the work that the prisoners do often benefit other corporations, who go on to sell what is produced in prisons and earn a significant profit. (Corporations like McDonald’s, Victoria’s Secret, and many more all benefit from prison labor in some way or another.)

And incarcerated folks are also used by states to clean capitol and government buildings. Samuel Sinyangwe recently tweeted about being in Baton Rouge, Louisiana and seeing how those who were serving food, cleaning, printing paper, etc in the state capitol buildings were prisoners. Prison labor is also used in other states around the United States, including Arkansas. In one of her books that came out over 20 years ago, Hillary Clinton also wrote about the prison labor that was used in the Arkansas governor’s mansion while Bill Clinton was governor.

Mother Jones has numerous investigations and reports on the many aspects of the prison industrial complex, including why many prison inmates went on strike a few months ago. Shane Bauer, for example, worked for four months as a prison guard in Louisiana and wrote on the conditions of the prison, the innerworkings, and how the guards treat the inmates. Bauer was also on an episode of the podcast Politically Reactive to talk about that investigation and the prison industrial complex as a whole.

The criminal justice system in the United States is severely flawed. There are backed up courts which allow for delayed trials, biases in many folks (especially police) result in a disproportionate amount of black and brown folks to be incarcerated, and legislation on a local and federal level often result in more folks being put behind bars. This is a system that allowed for Kalief Browder to spend three years in Rikers for a crime he didn’t commit because his trial kept getting pushed back.

This is a system that allows for severe exploitation of many marginalized and vulnerable communities and often calls for more policing and longer sentences, both of which usually impact people and communities of color on a disproportionate level. While the thirteenth amendment abolished slavery in the way we typically understand it, it did result in a shift of how work is exploited and set up the vast system of mass incarceration.

To hear and learn more from folks who have been or are currently incarcerated:

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