“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
The year is 1924, and a white man by the name of Martin Tabert has decided to hop a train. Found and arrested for vagrancy, he is fined $25, which his family pays. Yet, that money is lost in the Tallahassee prison system. After that, Tabert is “leased” to a lumber company, where he is eventually whipped to death.
It’s 2017, and Frank Dwayne Ellingtion, a black man and a prisoner in Alabama, is released to go to his job at a poultry plant. While cleaning a machine, he is killed. He has been instructed to clean it while it is running. If he were other than a prisoner, there might be a wrongful death suit brought by his family. But he is not a private citizen. He is a convict.
According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, “the Alabama Department of Corrections (ADOC) continues to send hundreds of prisoners to work for private companies, generating nearly $11 million a year for the perennially underfunded agency.”
There’s something innately immoral about our country’s labor system. We can talk all day about the starvation wages spent on people working at McDonald’s. We can talk about how AirBnbs are squeezing out hotel industry employees. But let’s take a moment to focus on one of America’s biggest and most continuous perpetrators of evil, the prison industrial complex. In particular, let’s take a moment to talk about convict leasing.
According to Wikipedia, convict leasing WAS “…a system of penal labor practiced in the Southern United States. Convict leasing provided prisoner labor to private parties, such as plantation owners and corporations (e.g. Tennessee Coal and Iron Company). The lessee was responsible for feeding, clothing, and housing the prisoners.”
Officially speaking, convict leasing ended in 1928, only a couple of years after the Pulitzer Prize-winning story on Tabert was written. In practice, however, it’s debatable. Convict leasing, popularized in the Jim Crow South has never exactly gone away. There are still prison farms, and leasing is making a comeback. Like many of the truly awful things in this modern era, an increase in convict labor can be traced to unfettered capitalism, xenophobia, horrible immigration policies and the administration of Donald Trump.
A strange argument admittedly. What does Trump have to do with prison slave labor? With modernized xenophobia at its peak, there are more and more farms, and less immigrant labor available, and food itself has been dying on the vine for years. The fact of the matter is that over an estimated 70% is picked by undocumented laborers. However, as more and more immigrants are being stopped at the border, and put into concentration camps, along with more deportations, farms have been at a crossroads of how to find affordable labor. Prison slavery solves that problem. You didn’t actually think the answer would be to hire more Americans, did you?
As the crops have been dying, states like Arizona, have given in to a return to convict leasing. It is no coincidence that Maricopa County’s infamous former Sheriff Joe Arpaio is an admirer of President Trump; nor is it a coincidence that he was pardoned by the President. After all, Arpaio’s Tent City operated for 24 years providing chain gang labor for the county.
Would you rather pay someone $11 an hour or $3-$4 an hour, or better yet, nearly nothing at all? That’s the situation that prison farms present to the agricultural industry.
Nor is it in agriculture alone. Arizona prisoners are leased to companies as telemarketers, In Louisiana, convict labor is renovating the state capitol. According to an investigation by the Southern Poverty Law Center, a review of records shows dozens of poultry companies employed more than 600 prisoners in at least seven states in 2016.
More and more in the news, not only for their lobbyists but for crimes such as selling innocent teens to prison for profit, the prison industrial complex continues to engage in modern slavery through prison leasing.
In Pennsylvania, Judge Mark Ciavarella, Jr. was convicted of incarcerating children, many in their teens, but one as young as 10 years old, to for-profit juvenile facilities after receiving a $1 MILLION kickback to do so.
The prison-for-profit system is the seemingly never-ending nightmare that keeps on giving. While in the 20th century it was frowned upon to use convict leasing in agriculture, like many recent evolutions of the system, it’s becoming more common again. The 13th Amendment is seen as permission for whatever treatment workers receive, from working in unhealthy and unregulated environments to low or non-existent pay. The federal court ruled as recently as 2010 that prisoners had no right under the Constitution to be paid for labor.
The increase in prisons run by for-profit corporations increased from five in 1998 to a hundred in 2008, and profits increased more than 500 percent in just 20 years, thus incentivizing increased and harsher sentencing. With this much potential manpower and the legal loophole provided by the 13th Amendment, using prisoners as leased labor will only increase.
The intersection of public law, privatized prison systems, and convict leasing is the perfect storm. Until another white man is made famous for its abuses, it’s likely to continue, and only get worse.
Michael David Raso has worked as a writer, editor, and journalist for several different publications since graduating from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. If you like this piece, you can read more of his work here.