The United States is only 5% of the world’s population but makes up 25% of the world’s prisoners. The United States now holds the title of having the highest incarceration rate in the world. For such a progressive nation it is a shock to have such a high percentage of incarceration with a complete lack of rehabilitation or reform.
The 13th amendment states; “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duty convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction”. The 13th amendment abolished slavery and continues to grant all Americans freedom; except for those imprisoned.
Although the 13th amendment abolished slavery, the exception to this is when slavery and involuntary servitude is used as a punishment for the “dully convicted”. In simpler terms, if you are imprisoned you could be required to perform free labor and services that are deemed appropriate by the judicial system. This has been coined as modern-day slavery that stems from oppression, racism, elitism, and more. Upon the abolishment of slavery, Jim Crow laws then paved the way for a disproportionate amount of black people to be incarcerated. The law would be unfairly strict implementing segregation rules and convicting black people of petty crimes such as loitering and not having employment records on hand. For such small crimes, black people would be incarcerated for an extremely long and inappropriate length of time. The tough-on-crime laws and the “crack crisis” exasperated this issue and since then there have been an unequal amount of black people in prison than white people with no signs of improvement.
The “tough on crime” approach also did not provide the anticipated results. President Clinton even admitted that that approach was not only wrong but caused more harm than good making the situation worse than it was before. Not only do we have more people imprisoned than any other country but our recidivism rate is equally high. Many Americans have been pleading for the justice system to use more rehabilitation models and give prisoners more rights to no avail. There is an extreme resistance to properly supporting those incarcerated and providing them with all the tools they need to successfully integrate back into society. If people are not offending or re-offending America loses a large free workforce that is becoming a huge contributor to our economy. Not only is our system set up strategically for people to fail, but there is more to gain in having people incarcerated than having them rehabilitated back into society. It costs approximately $33, 000 a year to house each inmate in the United States which is chump change compared to the billions these people are producing in free or extremely low waged labor.
Prison labor claims to be in place to help those gain skills to take with them and be applied when those incarcerated are back in society. Work keeps them “out of trouble” and focused on tasks. However, this is not the main motivation for prison work. The main motivation is cheap labor, no benefits, and employees that essentially cannot say no and have zero rights. For example, being a barber is a very popular job to learn and perform in prison. It is a highly-skilled job that is in demand in and out of prison. It is also illegal for felons to get a barbers license, therefore, making much of that experience mute. So instead of helping prisoners with skills to be able to find jobs when released, they are hindering their ability to find work. This then can lead people back to criminal activity because they lack options and resources keeping them stuck in a cycle.
Prison labor is a billion-dollar industry that tries to keep its companies that produce labor non-disclosed in an effort to avoid backlash. Some of the bigger companies utilizing prison labor are; Pilsbury, Road Crews, McDonald’s, Walmart, and everyone’s favorite…Starbucks. Under the Work Opportunity Tax Credit (WOTC) employers get thousands in bonuses for hiring work-release inmates. They are able to hire these individuals well below the minimum wage and sometimes make as little as 90 cents an hour. People in these programs have no option to choose different employment as they are still at the mercy of our judicial system. They literally have no legal right to unionize or even complain.
With major companies getting free or almost free labor it makes sense that there is little motivation to provide any reform or rehabilitation for those incarcerated. This is even more concerning because the Supreme Court just ruled last month that individuals convicted on the State level cannot re-try their case in Federal Court. That means if you had an incompetent lawyer or were wrongly convicted you are out of luck! This is another way to keep people in prison and use those incarcerated for free labor. This is not to say that jobs should not be a part of or even required of inmates or that individuals who commit crimes don’t deserve punishment. The punishment needs to fit the crime and our justice system needs to uphold its citizen’s constitutional rights and values.