Skip

The Great American Chain Gang
May 29, 2014 10:06 PM   Subscribe


 
UGH! AH!
posted by flapjax at midnite at 10:16 PM on May 29




In early to say "If so, good riddance!"

Is it well-known that slavery as a penal measure is actually protected in the Constitution?

The text of the Thirteenth Amendment: "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."
posted by gingerest at 10:33 PM on May 29 [4 favorites]




Unicor's motto is "Unicor: Were life changing"

I read that as "Slavery: it's life changing"
.

Also, I used to give people shit when they bought american flags that weren't made in america (post-911 many many US flags were imported from china).

But then I read this: "the prison’s highest-paying job at $20 per week—stitching American flags for the state police"

So yeah, really best if people just didn't buy american flags. Seriously.
posted by el io at 10:40 PM on May 29 [3 favorites]


> Is it well-known that slavery as a penal measure is actually protected in the Constitution?

This is America we're talking about, so I'm going to say "No." It was a pretty smooth transition to the current model, and it's especially easy to be willfully ignorant about things that don't appear to affect you personally.
posted by Johann Georg Faust at 11:01 PM on May 29 [2 favorites]


Shop online.
posted by Anitanola at 11:20 PM on May 29


Good article. This is the site for the Prison Legal News magazine mentioned in the story, btw. It has a pretty amazing search interface that organizes articles by category and topic (and clicking through on an item allows further sifting, by year for example).

Here are a couple of recent (2014) articles related to prison labor:

Confronting Prison Slave Labor Camps and Other Myths

Businesses, Members of Congress Not Happy with UNICOR

This article from last year has a lot of interesting tidbits of information related to Unicor:

Audit Reveals Federal Prison Industries Faces Declining Revenue, Job Losses

For example:
FPI does not receive direct taxpayer funding and is responsible for generating its own revenue. Prior to 2009, FPI “achieved financial sustainability” and had annual net revenue averaging $26 million. The Inspector General noted that this was “primarily attributable to a surge in sales to the Department of Defense (DOD) as a result of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.”

FPI had $745 million in gross revenue in FY 2011, mainly from the sale of goods and services to the federal government; the DOD and Department of Homeland Security accounted for 69% of FPI sales during that fiscal year. Yet the agency has incurred “average net losses of $31 million annually from FYs 2009 through 2012.” Further, FPI’s net sales dropped 32% over that time period.

The decline in revenue in recent years was due to a number of factors, including the winding down of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan plus legislative changes that limited FPI’s “mandatory source” authority, which historically has required federal agencies to buy goods and services produced by FPI instead of seeking competing bids from private-sector companies.
There's a lot, lot more on the general topic (see under "Work"), and I'm not trying to do a "just sayin'" with that particular pull quote, but interesting – and yeah, the whole issue is pretty complex and intertwined with a lot of legal, ethical, governmental, philosophical, managerial, and human rights questions.
posted by taz at 12:18 AM on May 30 [5 favorites]


Americans, allow me to once again say, your shit is fucked up beyond belief.
posted by Joakim Ziegler at 12:45 AM on May 30 [4 favorites]




But are prisoners actually "working" or "being rehabilitated"? Learning to work for the sake of work itself, like good citizens.
posted by mary8nne at 1:32 AM on May 30


When a society devalues human labor as much as America is doing now, it's only fitting that labor be performed by the most dehumanized among us.
posted by oneswellfoop at 1:42 AM on May 30 [3 favorites]


The article makes some good points, namely about how debt and lack of skills contribute to recidivism post-release, but unfortunately it leads with the slavery angle which seems like a really inapt comparison. They're not slaves; they're prisoners. And maybe I missed it, but I don't see where room and board were factored into their compensation, let alone the expense of keeping them under guard.
posted by zanni at 3:09 AM on May 30 [1 favorite]


Slaves in the antebellum south also got room and board, and were also kept under guard, so I'm not sure what difference you're trying to point out.
posted by Elementary Penguin at 3:11 AM on May 30 [15 favorites]


I mean, the Thirteenth Amendment specifically exempts prison labor from its abolishment of slavery, so the people who wrote it certainly thought the two were comparable.
posted by Elementary Penguin at 3:14 AM on May 30 [4 favorites]


My point is that the second half of the article is actually fairly compelling in making a case for better working conditions for prisoners, including higher pay. The slavery comparison sours me on it though.

I think you could also make a decent argument that prison is cruel and unusual punishment, akin to (but not) slavery, but making that argument on the basis of prisoner compensation seems sketchy. If you agree with the basic idea of prison, that prison is punishment for crimes committed, then forced labor and low wages don't seem to be a particularly outrageous part of the package.

In short, to answer the article's subhead: prisoners don't have labor rights because they're not laborers. They're prisoners. Calling it modern-day slavery is an overreach that seems to aim more at attacking the prison system itself than securing better outcomes for prisoners. The few good points that are made are obscured by the inflammatory headline.
posted by zanni at 3:33 AM on May 30 [3 favorites]


This thread seems like a good place to link this Corey Robin piece: Stalinism on the installment plan.
posted by PMdixon at 3:37 AM on May 30 [2 favorites]


This pieces misses an important fact that in most US prisons, work is a sought-after privilege that is denied to the highest risk prisoners and suspended or revoked for misbehavior.
posted by MattD at 4:11 AM on May 30 [1 favorite]


Zanni, Taz's link to Kilgore (myths) may be of interest. It's not an exoneration:

...though tales of abuse in private prisons abound, the state and federal prison systems have given us the supermaxes and Special (or Security) Housing Units (SHUs), where people live in torturous total isolation for years on end. Florence ADX, Pelican Bay SHU and the isolation units in Angola, Louisiana are all government-operated institutions. In fact, the privates try to stay away from the “hard cases,” preferring to focus on cherry-picking people with nonviolent convictions and no major medical problems. Recruiting low cost “clients” helps the bottom line. […]
The total revenue for the two largest prison providers, Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) and the GEO Group, came to a little over three billion dollars in 2012. That is less than half the state corrections budget for California.


The upshot: we are as poor stewards of our prisons as anything driven by raw economics.
posted by kid ichorous at 4:28 AM on May 30


Some jobs in prisons are hotly contested. Most are forced. If you are able-bodied you are a slave of the state, literally. The difference is between (relatively well-paid) industry work for UNICOR or state-run enterprises (in Maryland all state procurement is obligated to seek prison-made contracts first.)

It's not really surprising. If the 13th Amendment actually had abolished all forced servitude, those jobs would have to be paid a market wage. If prisoners were not also exploited at the commissary, where they buy essential goods using money they earn at less than a dollar a day, then there'd be no incentive to compete for the good industry jobs. And so class is reproduced among the poorest group in all of the US. Kind of the House/Field slave distinction.
posted by anotherpanacea at 4:32 AM on May 30 [1 favorite]


I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that the subordinate clause in the 13th Amendment, while perhaps "period-appropirate" should no longer be applicable in a modern society.
posted by digitalprimate at 5:12 AM on May 30 [3 favorites]


I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that the subordinate clause in the 13th Amendment, while perhaps "period-appropirate" should no longer be applicable in a modern society.

Is your objection to the wording or to the concept of prisoners' working?
posted by IndigoJones at 5:30 AM on May 30




should no longer be applicable in a modern society.

I very much doubt you'd have much luck with that argument. This is settled law, and it would take a constitutional amendment to change it. We'd have better luck merely boycotting prison goods and changing state and federal procurement practices. In the long run, that's easier than a constitutional amendment.

But then: while I personally oppose the prison-industrial complex as such, I think the best bet for ending the related harm of mass incarceration is to ally with conservatives to show how expensive it is. So prison labor may not be the best place to start, because it is cost-saving even if it's horribly inefficient. Rather empty out the prisons and let those who remain work if they must. I'd much rather see two million people freed from imprisonment than keep the remaining million from involuntary servitude.

The general prison-industrial complex analysis claims that it's precisely the forced labor that feeds mass incarceration. But that's almost certainly wrong, in much the same was as it's false to believe that private and for-profit prisons fuel mass incarceration. This is something we the people have done to our fellow citizens: we can't blame capitalism, it's democracy that's failed. But the upside of that is that we the people can fix it.
posted by anotherpanacea at 6:00 AM on May 30 [2 favorites]


bukvich: the difference is that the inmates LOVE the rodeo. Competing in sport is very different from working a slave labor factory job.
posted by leotrotsky at 6:13 AM on May 30


I'd like to see prisoners working AFTER they are out of prison. Some work furthers that goal if it teaches a skill, but mostly I'd like to see increased efforts towards education. I'd also like to see employers more willing to hire people out of prison, but I understand the pressures against it too.

What I would like to see is something like prisoners working in jobs for slave labor wages only if the employer agrees to bring them on for at least minimum wage for a set period of time after they are out so they can establish some recent employment history.
posted by Drinky Die at 6:19 AM on May 30


This is probably the bad kind of self-link, but....

The JCI Prison Scholars Program is creating Free College Classes in Prison.
posted by anotherpanacea at 6:26 AM on May 30


This thread seems like a good place to link this Corey Robin piece: Stalinism on the installment plan.

As deplorable as the American prison system is, I'm not sure the quasi-Godwinning of tossing out the "Stalinism" label is appropriate. True, our legal system sucks, but it actually exists, whereas the Troikas decided outcomes before "defendants" were even arrested or alternatively, after they were already on their way to a transit camp. Sure prisoners in many states do back-breaking labor for little-to-no compensation, but we are not clearing entire states, packing the people into unheated, unwatered freight cars for weeks on end shipping them to ANWAR and making them build an un-navigable canal to nowhere until their typhus infested bodies freeze and/or starve to death simply for the crime of being an inconvenient minority group occupying said state.
posted by The 10th Regiment of Foot at 7:02 AM on May 30 [1 favorite]


Some jobs in prisons are hotly contested. Most are forced. If you are able-bodied you are a slave of the state, literally. The difference is between (relatively well-paid) industry work for UNICOR or state-run enterprises (in Maryland all state procurement is obligated to seek prison-made contracts first.)

It's not really surprising. If the 13th Amendment actually had abolished all forced servitude, those jobs would have to be paid a market wage.


It was not my experience that most jobs in prison were forced. The observation in the American Prospect article was closer to what I observed: Despite the conditions and the pay, most inmates want to work. A job gives them a safe place to be for hours each day, provides a break from the monotony of prison life, and—in most states—puts a few dollars and cents in their commissary account.

And absent the 13th Amendment exception of prisoners from the abolishment of involuntary servitude, I'm not sure you can conclude that prison jobs, especially the institutional maintenance that the article identifies as the largest proportion of them, would have to be paid a market wage. At jails (as opposed to prisons), the jobs are typically filled by volunteers, who do it for the chance to get extra time out of the cell or extra food at meal times.

I agree with the several commenters who find that the focus on "slave labor" misses more important priorities in terms of prison reform. (And I say that as someone who supports abolishing prisons altogether.)
posted by layceepee at 7:19 AM on May 30


But are prisoners actually "working" or "being rehabilitated"?

From TFA, they are actually working, and in some states, for free and under the threat of further punishment. But they are definitely not being rehabilitated - they're doing the labor to support other incarcerated individuals, like working in the kitchens and cleaning bathrooms, laundry service, doing field labor, etc. None of that is rehabilitating anyone, it's cutting the bottom line for prisons. In short, they're making it more affordable to jail people.

And I'm glad the article got into the ugly history of convict leasing, slavery under another name.
posted by filthy light thief at 7:41 AM on May 30 [1 favorite]


It was not my experience that most jobs in prison were forced.

It very much depends on what you mean by "forced." It's absolutely possible to avoid prison work if you, for instance, get put in solitary confinement. But what we mean by forced is not (necessarily) that you'd be physically punished for refusing to participate: sometimes the punishment is just nutriloaf and lack of access to hygeine products. Sometimes they stick you in a shower and turn the heat up until your skin melts off.

But clearly many prisoners don't work, for various reasons. Part of this is the aging of the prison population, part of it is that religious and volunteer activities like Bible study or librarianship can be used to fill the requirement: in those cases there's not even prison wages of less than a dollar a day, but you get time credited towards shortening your sentence.

the focus on "slave labor" misses more important priorities in terms of prison reform.

Here I tend to agree, as I said: better to reduce incarceration until it no longer makes sense to call it "mass" incarceration. Go back to incarcerating 1 in 300 instead of 1 in 30, and force the 1 in 300 to work if that's the tradeoff we have to make to end the mass carceral state.

But the fact that prison labor is literally, legally slavery to the state means that it can be poorly paid, unsafe, unregulated, and non-union. So it's important legally and politically to point out that we have the same number of African-Americans forced to work today as we did before the Civil War.
posted by anotherpanacea at 8:00 AM on May 30 [4 favorites]


So it's important legally and politically to point out that we have the same number of African-Americans forced to work today as we did before the Civil War.

Not sure of the numbers there. There are certainly a larger number of blacks in the criminal justice system (meaning: in prison, jail, on probation, or parole) now than there were slaves, but that is not the same as more being forced to work. Not to diminish the statistic any further, but there's also a lot more people now than there were back then. The roughly 800,000 slaves made up the majority of the black population in America then. Now the 850,000+ blacks currently in the justice system are only a small (but grossly disproportionate) portion of the 40 million black people living in America.
posted by The 10th Regiment of Foot at 8:47 AM on May 30


Now the 850,000+ blacks currently in the justice system are only a small (but grossly disproportionate) portion of the 40 million black people living in America.

Progress!
posted by anotherpanacea at 8:52 AM on May 30 [4 favorites]


I have to admit I didn't realize the phrasing from the 13th amendment.

That makes the phrasing of the Prison Abolition Movement not just a mere parallel to abolitionism, but a literal movement to abolish the remainders of the concept of slavery from our current judicial system.
posted by symbioid at 8:59 AM on May 30 [2 favorites]


I got blocked up at the part where the women had to pay for their own pads and tampons.
posted by jeather at 9:22 AM on May 30


Some jails and prisons charge for toilet paper and the required uniforms even. Then there are the ones that let you pay a daily rate to get into less crowded conditions. Yeah, it's that bad.
posted by The 10th Regiment of Foot at 9:40 AM on May 30


And maybe I missed it, but I don't see where room and board were factored into their compensation, let alone the expense of keeping them under guard.

Are you fucking kidding me? That's like the Chinese billing the executed's family for the cost of the bullet.

Room & board? Expense of the guard? Is this some fucking vacation people have signed up for? THe've been sentenced to serve a term in prison by the State's justice system. Incarceration is they're punishment.

And you want them to pay room & board?
posted by Pirate-Bartender-Zombie-Monkey at 10:56 AM on May 30 [1 favorite]


That's like the Chinese billing the executed's family for the cost of the bullet.

Is it really? Criminal stabs Joe Taxpayer, and then Joe has to pay the full tab for Criminal's time in jail, and it's...what...somehow unethical to require Criminal to mop floors to cut down o the cost of incarceration? I'm not getting the outrage.

I've seen a variety of prison work programs in action, and while some of the jobs certainly aren't glamorous (license plate factory, mopping), others are certainly teaching marketable skills (cattle ranch etc.).
posted by craven_morhead at 11:19 AM on May 30 [2 favorites]


in much the same was as it's false to believe that private and for-profit prisons fuel mass incarceration.

I could have sworn I read a report not too long ago that some (but not all) private prisons have occupancy guarantees in their contracts. That is, the state must keep the prison at, say, 90% occupancy for the duration of the contract. Because bottom line, not community safety.

So I think it's entirely accurate to say that private prisons are a siginifcant factor in the US's high levels of incarceration.
posted by lord_wolf at 11:32 AM on May 30


I got blocked up at the part where the women had to pay for their own pads and tampons

Not to sound glib, but my first grasp and gasp of "fuck the system" at this was when i found out via an ex whose house i was crashing at that EBT/welfare explicitly either didn't cover this, or made no specific exception for it. It's always out of pocket.

My reaction to that part of this article was "figures", that's always seen as some sort of "luxury" or just generally something that's somehow, in some nebulous way they can never explain, the fault of the woman.

So yea, fuck the system.
posted by emptythought at 11:37 AM on May 30 [1 favorite]


It very much depends on what you mean by "forced."

anotherpanacea, I was using it in the context of your division into positions that were "hotly contested" and those that were "forced." You thought most were forced.

My experience, which is similar to that of the former prisoner featured in the article, was different. Most jobs were closer to the hotly contest end of the spectrum, because most prisoners--given the choice between doing nothing and working--choose to work.

It's true, as you point out, that the distinction may be academic, because inmates who do choose not to work usually face horrible consequences. But I'm not sure you are correct to conclude that, absent the ultimately compulsory nature of the work, inmates wouldn't continue to compete for jobs. Jobs are valuable to inmates for other reasons beyond any immediate financial gain, and I think most inmates would choose to work rather than not even without a carrot or a big stick.
posted by layceepee at 3:12 PM on May 30


Horrible consequences = Forced
posted by stoneweaver at 4:17 PM on May 30 [2 favorites]


So I think it's entirely accurate to say that private prisons are a siginifcant factor in the US's high levels of incarceration.

Less than ten percent of all prisoners are housed in private prisons. We could empty them all tomorrow and we'd still have a mass incarceration problem bigger than any other country in the world. Given that state and federal prisons are massively overcrowded (like 135% capacity, or worse in places like California) I'd say that if we're going to keep sending folks to prison, we should at least build beds for them. But as I said, the real problem is that we keep sending folks to prison, which is not really driven by a profit motive; it's driven by craven racism and misguided retributivism.

I'm not sure you are correct to conclude that, absent the ultimately compulsory nature of the work, inmates wouldn't continue to compete for jobs.

Well, I'd be glad to be proven wrong. Let's amend the constitution, abolish slavery and find out what the prisoners do when they aren't facing horrible consequences! If you're right, the system will still function about the same even if we eliminate that pesky "slavery is okay" provision.
posted by anotherpanacea at 8:37 PM on May 30 [1 favorite]


« Older The case of the missing mascots   |   Gender and Jeopardy Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments



Post