Shop 'til They Drop | Sojourners

Shop 'til They Drop

Ever wonder why things in the local mall are so cheap? Prison labor may be part of the answer.
woaiss / Shutterstock
woaiss / Shutterstock

TWO WEEKS BEFORE Christmas last year, I stood with 50 other national faith leaders on the banks of the Alabama River in Montgomery, Ala., trying to imagine what it must have been like to stand on that land in 1850, at the height of the black chattel slave trade.

We were embarking on a one-day pilgrimage convened by Sojourners and hosted by the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI). We were there to understand one thing: the nature of the confinement and control of black bodies in the U.S. from chattel slavery through Jim Crow to mass incarceration.

Congress banned the import of enslaved people in 1808, but it did not ban the slave industry. Slave traders turned inward. Men, women, and children of African descent were sold in the Upper South; chained together with shackles around their feet, wrists, waists, and necks; and marched—often without shoes—over hundreds of miles into the Deep South for sale to farm owners desperate to meet the explosive global demand for cotton after the invention of the cotton gin.

“But walking was too slow and expensive to meet the high demand,” said Bryan Stevenson, founding executive director of EJI, to the faith leaders standing at the mouth of Montgomery’s Commerce Street. Stevenson explained that sales multiplied as transport methods improved. By the 1840s, the Commerce Street port housed a steamboat dock and a train station. Rather than marching 20 people over hundreds of miles, traders could transport hundreds of en-slaved people at a time—quicker and less expensive. Slavery was industry. Even in these early iterations, maximizing profit and lowering the bottom line were of chief concern.

According to a 2013 EJI report, “Slavery in America: The Montgomery Slave Trade,” Montgomery’s Commerce Street became one of the most easily accessible points of trade in Alabama by 1860. Slave traders would unload humans from ships and trains at the top of Commerce Street and auction them three blocks away at Court Square. Auctioneers coaxed farm owners to push bids higher until the auctioneer cried “Sold!” Mothers were separated from sons and daughters. Sisters were separated from brothers. And husbands were separated from wives. Humans were forced to fill days with bone-breaking labor, heartache, and absolute acquiescence to the domination of overseers and masters—until death freed them from the clutch of American commerce.

By 1850, more than half of the 2.5 million enslaved people in the U.S. labored on cotton farms. By 1860, the enslaved population increased to 4 million. By the start of the Civil War in 1861, the entire U.S. had become a slave-based economy. The goods from the South supported the way of life in the North.

The ‘black codes’

One of the greatest myths in America is that the Civil War ended slavery. It did not. It transformed it.

The 13th Amendment abolished slavery “except as a punishment for crime.” In the years following the Civil War, Southern and Midwestern states struggled to recover from the economic impacts of war and the sudden loss of 4 million unpaid laborers. These states leveraged the constitutional exception to revive flailing economies. They turned to the only thing they knew for the previous 250 years—free labor. They slipped through the constitutional exception to reinvent the centuries-old American practice of lowering bottom lines through forced free labor. Slavery in the Jim Crow era became known as “peonage” and “convict leasing.”

Peonage laws (aka “black codes”) sprung up in states throughout the South and West. They lowered the bar of criminality, transforming noncriminal acts, such as sitting on a bench for too long, into criminal offenses. Black codes required servitude if prisoners could not pay their fines. The business would pay the fine to the state in return for the prisoners’ labor.

Douglas A. Blackmon explains peonage in his book Slavery by Another Name: The Re-enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II. He says peonage was “a system in which armies of free men, guilty of no crimes and entitled by law to freedom, were compelled to labor without compensation, were repeatedly bought and sold, and were forced to do the bidding of white masters through the regular application of extraordinary physical coercion.”

Convict leasing was the pervasive practice of leasing out prisoners to local industries. According to Robert Perkinson’s Texas Tough: The Rise of America’s Prison Empire, by 1898 as much as 73 percent of Alabama’s total state revenue came from convict leasing. Whitney Benns explained in an Atlantic article, “American Slavery, Reinvented,” that convict leasing was cheaper than slavery because farmers and corporations didn’t have to concern themselves with the health of their workers.

While African Americans were 15 percent of the U.S. population in 1880, research by revealed that African Americans comprised the majority of prisoners in the South and West, and their 15-hour workdays on chain gangs and in fields contributed to lucrative prison profits.

Convict leasing today

I marched with the other faith leaders, retracing the route of black ancestors who walked from the Alabama River and from the train station up Commerce Street. We boarded the bus and drove past historic buildings that once served as the slave depots that jailed these men, women, and children.

“What must it have been like,” I thought, “to live in times when your life only mattered as much as it profited others?”

I imagine it felt a lot like it does today.

While the Supreme Court clarified the illegality of peonage and “debtor’s prisons” in the 20th century, convict leasing is still alive and well. The Ella Baker Center for Human Rights reports that “37 states have legalized the contracting of prison labor by private corporations who bring their operations inside prison walls.” The report lists companies taking advantage of these contract opportunities. They include Nordstrom, Eddie Bauer, Motorola, Microsoft, Victoria’s Secret, Compaq, IBM, Boeing, AT&T, Texas Instruments, Revlon, Macy’s, Target, Nortel, Hewlett-Packard, Intel, Honeywell, Pierre Cardin, and Lucent Technologies, among others.

Prison laborers work through in-house or state-run convict-leasing programs or through for-profit convict-leasing businesses. Colorado Correctional Industries (CCI), a self-funded state agency, is a leader among current convict-leasing agencies with “a burgeoning $65 million business that employs 2,000 convicts at 17 facilities,” according to Jennifer Alsever’s 2014 report for Fortune magazine.

Businesses tend to support prison-labor programs because they offer a ready workforce and low bottom lines, Whitney Benns’ Atlantic report stated. Prison officials tend to focus on the virtue of meaningful work.

In Angola for Life: Rehabilitation and Reform Inside the Louisiana State Penitentiary, a documentary by The Atlantic, prison warden Burl Cain is noted for his use of prison labor to reform violent convicts serving life sentences without possibility of parole. When he first arrived at Angola, violence ruled the prison. He instituted a work program. According to Cain, the violence has abated.

But serious ethical questions remain: If work is compulsory, is it still virtuous? What if the employer is the state? Does the lack of state protection of prisoners against slavery and exploitation reveal a pervasive underlying belief in greater society that the imprisoned are not fully human? Worse, does it reveal a lack of belief that the imprisoned can be reformed? Finally, does the demographic breakdown of prisoners reveal the continued practice and acceptance of racialized slavery in the U.S.?

Degrading the image of God

The foundations of the Judeo-Christian understanding of work are established in the first chapter of Genesis. God makes all humankind in God’s image and in the next breath calls humanity to exercise agency or stewardship over the rest of creation. God calls humanity to work and instills in every single human inherent dignity, worth, and worthiness of protection of the law. As a result, to be human means having inherent dignity—regardless of one’s actions in this life—an inherent call to work, and the inherent protection of the law.

The Fair Labor Standards Act and the National Labor Relations Act protect American workers from exploitation. According to Benns, prisoners are not explicitly exempt from these protections, but courts have ruled against application of the protections for the imprisoned. In essence, the courts have treated prisoners as if they are less than human—as if they are chattel slaves.

The spiritual implication is real: To force an entire class of people to work without the legal protections enjoyed by the rest of society is to ignore and degrade the image of God among us. For the state to do this is to create a second class of citizenry—a class considered less than human. This is why slavery is considered sin. It degrades the image of God on earth.

In the same passage, God sets the standard for what it looks like to govern well: Good governance is about stewardship, not domination. Thus, for the state to compel work is an act of state domination and violence, not stewardship of citizens or the greater society. It reduces the state to the moral level of the criminal whose acts of domination and violence break trust with society.

The word “penitentiary” is derived from the word “penance.” According to Harry Elmer Barnes’ 1921 treatise “The Historical Origin of the Prison System in America,” from the late 18th century through the 19th century, the church conceived penitentiaries to be places of penance that lead to reform. They advocated a combination of confinement and labor to create conditions that lead prisoners to reflect on and repent of their wrongs.

The use of work as a component of reform has arguably moral roots, but full restoration requires the recognition of prisoners’ full humanity and full protection of their human rights.

Whole Foods announced last year that it would stop selling products made by prison labor. The company was responding to protests by the Houston-based advocacy group End Mass Incarceration Houston. The group protested Colorado Correctional Industries’ exploitative low wages. According to a CCI official, prison workers’ base pay starts at 60 cents per day, but they can earn $300 to $400 per month with incentives. At Angola penitentiary, prisoners might receive as little as 2 cents per hour. Neither wage is enough for prisoners to manage prison fees that typically shift the financial burden of incarceration from the state to the imprisoned and their families.

African Americans make up 13 percent of the U.S. population, but represent nearly 40 percent of the nation’s prisoners. People of color comprise more than 60 percent of people marking time behind bars. With outsized presence, people of color are more vulnerable to exploitation, mistreatment, and forced work through the current convict-leasing system.

Making a choice

As the faith leaders returned from our pilgrimage last year and re-entered the EJI office, we learned that EJI had recently discovered that its building served as a pre-Civil War slave depot. The similarities between past and present haunted me. When we think of the antebellum era, we often say to ourselves, “How could they accept a world where slavery was a viable economic system?” We forget that we, too, live in such a world.

The approaching season of Advent is nothing if not a season of hope for a better world. It is also the peak selling season for retailers. Over the next several months, mothers, fathers, and lovers will fill malls and online stores across the nation. Credit cards will swipe and corporate profits will rise.

With each purchase, shoppers and shareholders alike will make a choice. Shoppers will use their dollars to vote for a moral economy and shareholders will forego the highest possible profit and accept “enough” for the sake of a higher moral good.

Or, by their actions, they will benefit—knowingly or unknowingly—from the slave labor that results in lower prices and a “happier” holiday shopping season. For some people, at least.

Sojourners, November 2016
This appears in the November 2016 issue of Sojourners