150 years after the 13th Amendment was added to the Constitution, slavery continues in the U.S. in a new form. The Amendment banned involuntary servitude and labor, except as punishment for convicted criminals. The prison system and wealthy corporations have used this loophole to profit from what many have termed “legalized slavery” under the radar.
Profit from this unethical system only incentivizes imprisonment and longer sentences, as it relies on having a mass number of workable inmates. This adds to the problem of mass incarceration with laws in place which unfairly target minorities.
Today there is more incentive than ever to lock people up, as it reels in profit for investors and private prisons. Though violent crime rates have gone down, the prison population of the U.S. has soared. One quarter of inmates worldwide reside in the U.S., despite the country containing only 5 percent of the global population.
Companies such as AT&T have utilized this mass incarceration in states where prison labor contracted by private corporations is legal. Prisoners are encouraged to work so that they can send money home, but they are also coerced by the threat of being locked in isolation cells if they refuse. And of course, they are ideal workers for large corporations.
They work full time, can’t go on strike, don’t get vacations, and never have family emergencies. Most importantly, in some states, they are only paid a fraction of the working minimum wage. Those residing in federal prisons in Colorado typically receive two dollars an hour; inmates in private prisons can sometimes be paid just 17 cents per hour.
Many would agree that this is exploitation and must be unconstitutional. But it’s all perfectly legal and in accordance with the 13th Amendment. And, even eerier, the U.S. has a dark history of manipulating its own laws to funnel minorities into prisons to work.
It all started right after the Civil War, when freed slaves were convicted of unproven crimes and hired out to work in mines, on railroads, or on farms. Then, Jim Crow laws were put into place, continuing the tradition of racist laws.
The war on drugs, with laws still in place today, is a subtler example of legislation targeting minorities. One example of this is the grossly longer sentencing of those found in possession of crack (usually found in poor black or Hispanic communities) than those found in possession of cocaine powder (which is typically used in affluent white communities).
Laws such as these, as well as the basic discrimination against minorities in court, have resulted in disproportionate black and Hispanic prison populations. These inmates, almost all of them convicted for non-violent crimes, are then put to work in the prison industry complex. They are paid too little and released too late, so the “rich men in suits” can profit as much as possible.
The U.S. never stopped exploiting the forced, underpaid labor of minorities. Slavery simply evolved into a legal, less-known system, all the while keeping its unethical and racist undertones.