Slaves of the State
by Paul Wright, May 1994
from the book
The Celling of America
edited by Daniel Burton-Rose
with editors of Prison Legal News
Dan Pens and Paul Wright
Common Courage Press, 1998
Many people have the mistaken impression that slavery was
outlawed or abolished in the United States after the civil war
by the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment. Unfortunately, that
was not the case. The Thirteenth Amendment reads: "Neither
slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as punishment for crimes
whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist
within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction."
The effect of the Thirteenth Amendment was not to abolish slavery
but to limit it to those who had been convicted of a crime.
The reality was made apparent in the aftermath of the civil
war when large numbers of newly freed Black slaves found themselves
"duly convicted" of crimes and in state prisons where,
once again, they labored without pay. It was common practice for
state prisons to "lease" prison labor out to private
contractors in a modern form of chattel slavery. This situation
led the Virginia Supreme Court to remark in an 1871 case, Ruffin
v. Commonwealth, that prisoners were "slaves of the state."
All that has changed since then is that the state is less honest
about its slave-holding practices.
Until the 1930s most state and federal prisons were largely
self-sufficient, producing most of the goods and food they consumed
and even producing a surplus, for sale, of food and some industrial
products. In many states prisoners even served as armed guards
(until the mid-1970s the state of Arkansas held some 3,000 prisoners
with only 27 civilian employees) and many other functions which
required minimal investment by the state. Prison self-sufficiency
and excess production for profit largely ended during the mid-1930s
when the U.S. was in the midst of the depression and both unions
and manufacturers complained about competing against prison-made
products on the open market.
One of the laws passed was the Ashurst-Sumners Act (1935)
which prohibited the transport in interstate commerce of prison-made
goods unless the prisoners were paid at least minimum wage.
Prison labor did not start to become a major issue again until
the 1980s. Until then most prison-produced goods were either for
use within the prison system or sold to other state agencies,
license plates being the most familiar example. This began to
change with the massive prison building and incarceration binge.
In a 1986 study designed to reduce the cost to the government
of its prison policies, former Supreme Court Justice Warren Burger
issued the call for transforming prisons into "factories
with fences." In essence, prisons should once again become
self-sustaining, even profit-producing, entities requiring minimal
financial input from the state.
While some think that slavery-i.e., unpaid, forced labor-offers
enormous profit potential for the slave owner, there are historical
reasons slavery is no longer the dominant mode of economic production.
First, the slave owner has a capital investment in his slave:
regardless of whether the slave is working or producing profit
he must be fed, housed, and so on, in minimal conditions to ensure
the slave's value as a labor producer remains. With the rise of
industrial capitalism in the 18th and 19th century capitalists
discovered that capitalism has its boom and bust cycles characterized
by over-production. Thus idle slaves would become a drain on the
owner's finance because they would still require feeding, housing,
etc., regardless of whether they were working. However, if the
slave were "free" he could be employed at low wages
and then laid off when not producing profit for the employer,
the wage slave was free to starve, free to be homeless, and so
on, with no consequences for the owner.
Another reason chattel slavery was inefficient compared to
wage slavery was that the slaves would occasionally revolt, destroying
the means of production and/or killing the slave owner. More common
and less dramatic were the acts of sabotage and destruction that
made machinery, with its attendant capital investment, impractical
for use by slaves. So by the middle of the 19th century wage slaves
employing machines could out produce, at greater profit for the
factory owner, chattel slaves using less easily damaged, more
The problem slave owners of old faced was what to do with
non-producing slaves. Today's slave owner-the state-faces the
opposite problem of having idle slaves who must be fed, clothed
and housed whether or not they produce anything of value. The
current thinking goes that any potential profit produced by prison
slaves is better than none.
Some of the proponents of prison slavery try to disguise it
as a "rehabilitation" or "vocational" program
designed to give prisoners job skills or a trade which can be
used upon their release. This is not the case. First, almost without
exception the jobs available in prison industries are labor intensive,
menial, low skill jobs which tend to be performed by exploited
workers in three places: Third World dictatorships, and in the
U.S., by illegal immigrants or prisoners. Clothes and textile
manufacturing are the biggest example of this. Second, because
the jobs don't exist in the first place the job skills acquired
are hardly useful. Does anyone expect a released prisoner to go
to Guatemala or El Salvador to get a job sewing clothes for the
U.S. market at a dollar a day? Third, if it's rehabilitation then
why not pay the prisoner at least minimum wage for his/her work?
Fourth, it ignores the reality that the U.S. has at least 8 or
9 million unemployed workers at any given time, many of them highly
skilled, who cannot find jobs that pay a meaningful wage to support
themselves. So-called "job retraining" programs are
a failure because all the training in the world won't create jobs
with decent wages. In pursuit of higher profits-by paying lower
salaries- U.S. and transnational corporations have transferred
virtually all labor intensive production jobs to Third World countries.
r The U.S. has little problem condemning the export of prison-made
goods from China. What makes this blatant hypocrisy is the fact
that the same criticisms leveled by the U.S. government against
Chinese prison-made goods can be leveled at U.S. prison-made goods.
Prison-made goods from California and Oregon are being exported
for retail sales. In a supreme irony, the California DOC is marketing
its clothing lines in Asia, competing against the sweatshops of
Indonesia, Hong Kong, Thailand and of course, China. The Prison
Blues brand of clothes, made by prisoners in Oregon, has annual
projected sales of over $1.2 million in export revenues. U.S.
State department officials were quoted saying they wished prison-made
goods were not exported by state DOC's because it is being raised
as an issue by other governments. Namely the Chinese, which have
cited U.S. practices in response to criticisms. For their part,
the Chinese have announced a ban on their export of prison-made
goods while the U.S. is stepping up such exports.
California prisoners making clothes for export are paid between
35 cents and $1 an hour. The Oregon prisoners are paid between
$6 to $8 an hour but have to pay back up to 80 percent of that
to cover the cost of their captivity. As they are employed by
a DOC-owned company this is essentially an accounting exercise
where the prisoners' real wages are between $1.20 to $1.80 an
hour. Still competitive with the wages paid to illegal immigrant
sweatshop workers here in the U.S. and wages paid to garment workers
in the Far East and Central America.
Fred Nichols, the administrator of Unigroup, the Oregon DOC
prison industries, has said: "We want them to work in the
same environment as on the outside" in terms of hiring interviews
and such. Yet obviously this does not include the right to collective
bargaining and union representation.
While the particulars may change, the trend continues towards
increased exploitation of prison slave labor. Some states, especially
those in the South-such as Texas, Arkansas, Louisiana-still have
unpaid prisoners laboring in fields supervised by armed guards
on horseback, with no pretense of "rehabilitation" or
"job training." In those states the labor is mandatory,
refusal to work brings harsh punishment and increases prison sentences
In 1977 the Supreme Court decided Jones v. North Carolina
Prisoner's Labor Union, which removed court protection for prison
union organizing. Efforts to obtain the minimum wage for prisoners
through litigation have been largely unsuccessful, with courts
bending over backwards to read exemptions (which are not written)
into the federal Fair Labor and Standards Act (FLSA).
In Washington the state offers a lot of incentives for private
businesses to employ prison slaves. Class I venture industries
pay no rent, electricity, water or similar costs. They are exempt
from state and federal workplace safety standards and pay no medical,
unemployment or vacation/sick leave to slaves who have no right
to collective organizing or bargaining. In a case like this we
are seeing welfare capitalism where private business is getting
a handout from the state at taxpayer expense. One which, will
largely swallow the profit paid back to the state under guise
of taxes, room and board, etc., by the prisoner. To the extent
that prison slaves are forced to pay state and federal taxes there
arises the question, linked to the right to vote, of taxation
without representation. If forced to pay taxes like any other
citizen, under the guise of rehabilitative or vocational employment,
then why not the right to vote given other workers and taxpayers?
Workers on the outside should also be aware of the consequences
that prison slave labor poses for their jobs. Ironically, as unemployment
on the outside increases, crime and the concomitant incarceration
rate increases. It may be that before too long people can only
find menial labor intensive production jobs in prisons or Third
World countries where people labor under similar conditions. The
factory with fences meets the prison without walls.