Yep, Prison Labor Sounds a Lot Like Slavery. | Sojourners

Yep, Prison Labor Sounds a Lot Like Slavery.

Christians would do well to reject the premise that there are throwaway people.
The illustration shows red hands in handcuffs that have been broken by a peace dove
Nazeeba Ibnat / iStock 

I HAD A conversation recently about an essay I’d written on prison labor in the United States. My colleague was shocked. Well into the 21st century, she mused, isn’t that a phenomenon reserved for totalitarian regimes on the other side of the planet?

It’s a reasonable assumption. After all, it sounds an awful lot like slavery.

The U.S. never abolished enslavement; we only regulated it. In 1865, the 13th Amendment to the Constitution ended legalized chattel slavery and involuntary servitude, except “as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.” This proviso, known as the “exceptions clause,” has served to obscure the continuation of an American slave system from the end of the Civil War to the present day.

Convict-leasing schemes were integral to rebuilding the South from the ashes of total war. Incarcerated labor fueled the postwar Industrial Revolution. And today, approximately 800,000 of the country’s nearly two million incarcerated people work for a pittance (on average, less than a dollar an hour) with varying degrees of willingness. If U.S. prisons and jails were to form that workforce into a conglomerate, they would be the nation’s third largest private employer, behind only Walmart and Amazon.

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The image shows the cover of the July 2024 issue of Sojourners magazine, which shows a dove pulling on a string which is pulling up a pillar from the ground. There is a boot trying to crush the pillar back into the ground.
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