Credit: Nicholas Kwok via Unsplash

Slavery is alive and well in America: it thrives in prisons across the country. There are close to 1.5 million people incarcerated in federal and state prisons; more than two-thirds of them are workers. The jobs that these prisoners perform are in most instances the same jobs many people have on the outside. Imprisoned people are cooks, food servers, dishwashers, painters, janitors, groundskeepers, barbers, electricians, and plumbers. They work in laundries, kitchens, factories, and hospitals. In some states they fight wildfires, clean up debris after floods and hurricanes, and help repair roads.

People in prison manufacture office furniture, mattresses, license plates, dentures, clothing, soap, glasses, traffic signs, and uniforms. They cultivate and harvest crops, work as welders and carpenters, and work in meat processing plants. If you can think of a job, there are prisoners who do it—and generally do it well. A June report by the ACLU found the prison workforce produces more than $11 billion dollars a year in goods and services. 

But there are stark differences between the workers out there and the people who are workers in prison. Workers out there can unionize and have protections against exploitation and abuse. Workers in prison are often thrown into unfamiliar jobs with little to no training and are under the complete control of their employers. They have no legal protections, and are paid pennies a day, if at all.

Surprisingly, it’s the 13th Amendment that makes these wretched conditions possible.

It’s ironic that the amendment that outlawed slavery and involuntary servitude explicitly excluded men and women who are convicted of a crime. The 13th Amendment legally allows people in prison to be used as slaves. In many cases that is exactly how we are used. It’s not just morally wrong; it’s a human rights abuse.

According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, more than 75 percent of prison workers surveyed report that they are forced to work. Refusal means they could face punishments such as solitary confinement, denial of good time opportunities to reduce their sentence, and loss of family visitation, as well as the inability to pay for basic life necessities like soap. 

I had a job where my boss, a prison guard, disrespected and dehumanized me every day, for no other reason than he could. I quit. I refused to keep dealing with the verbal abuse and bullying. As a result, I was written up and had my yard privileges taken away for three months. I wouldn’t accept being verbally abused and attacked every day, so I was denied even the basic right of going outside.

In prison, you’re told having a job is a privilege, yet you have no right to choose if you want to work or what type of work you do, and you’re subject to arbitrary, discriminatory, and punitive decisions by prison staff who select your work assignments. 

Some prisoners are assigned dangerous work in already unsafe conditions, without training or protective gear—even when the job requires it. Prison workers are also excluded from workplace protections such as minimum wage laws or overtime. Prisoners are not allowed to unionize and do not have any job safety guarantees.

How can society expect people released from prison to see others with humanity, dignity, and respect when it’s drilled into us that we don’t have any ourselves?

Several years ago, I had a job in the infirmary. I helped move sick inmates and cleaned rooms of blood and excrement. I was thrown into an unnerving and dangerous situation without having been given any training on how to protect myself while cleaning bodily fluids, just latex gloves, and no supervision. 

Prison workers have been burned with chemicals, maimed, and killed on the job. According to the ACLU report, numerous cases were documented nationwide of injuries that could have been prevented with proper training, machine guarding mechanisms, or personal protective equipment. Last month a prisoner here lost half his foot in a grounds crew accident. You get put into dangerous situations with no kind of protection or training to fall back on. 

People in prison who are exploited for their labor produce real value for companies and state employees. 

Joe Dole, the policy director of Parole Illinois and author of A Costly American Hatred, notes that thousands of companies, their employees and stockholders, prison guards and administrative staff have a vested interest in keeping people in prison. Dole writes that outsourcing prison labor turns prisoners into commodities, thus incentivizing more mass incarceration.

As it currently exists, the prison work system does not teach people a vocation or facilitate rehabilitation, despite the fact that Stateville could not run without prison workers. The system serves a purpose, but not one consistent with basic human rights. Prison labor is designed to benefit primarily public entities that capitalize on a vulnerable population that is at once a captive labor force and a captive consumer base.

It’s nothing more than exploitation. 

We need to end it. Prison policy shouldn’t be driven by the desire for cheap labor. The Illinois Department of Corrections cannot be allowed to treat people this way. Imagine if it was your family member that the state was using as a legal slave. 

Most prisoners want to work; they don’t want to be exploited. Jobs in prison should pay a fair wage and provide skills that transfer to employment in the real world. When people leave prison now, they are given nothing but bus fare. They have worked hard their entire time in prison and have nothing to show for it. The money they earned while working in prison would make a big difference in terms of recidivism. 

Society needs to take a close look at how we treat prison workers. No one would respond well to being treated this way. People in prison need to view work as a life skill and have the dignity of being paid for hard work. We know we’re viewed as a commodity, as slaves. 

How can society expect people released from prison to see others with humanity, dignity, and respect when it’s drilled into us that we don’t have any ourselves? How can you expect the people who get out of prison to be positive and productive members of society when all they’ve been is exploited and dehumanized to the point of slavery?

Anthony Ehlers is a writer incarcerated at Stateville Correctional Center. Find out more about incarcerated journalists via the Prison Journalism Project.