AUGUST 23, 2020

It Takes More Than Dollars to Destroy a System

The prison-industrial complex in the United States has grown into a troubling, tentacled beast that regularly crushes virtually unpaid incarcerated laborers. It’s a system in dire need of dismantling.

But how do you dismantle a system of oppressive, racist prison labor when it’s a multi-billion dollar industry that has been part of the U.S. economy since the 19th century?

You do more than just post about it on your Instagram story. You probably know what I’m talking about—earlier this summer, a viral IG post called for boycotting companies that allegedly “use prison labor.” Some of the companies in question included AT&T, Walmart, Whole Foods, Starbucks, and more. If only things were as transparent as they seem on Instagram...

There are two things to consider here: First, PolitiFact found that “the post contains an element of truth but ignores critical facts that would give a different impression.” Translation? Many of the companies deny using prison labor directly, but it’s hard to know everything vendors do.

Second—and most importantly—boycotting companies that use prison labor is not the most effective means of creating change for the 2.2 million incarcerated people in the U.S. Allow me to explain why.

It’s unreasonable to expect everyday consumers to be capable of discerning when companies do and do not employ prison labor. That’s not because they’re generally incapable—it’s because, at times, the companies themselves don’t even know when they’re employing prison labor. It’s that deeply entrenched in supply chains.

Roll the tape:

Cutting through the fetters binding prisons to corporations to end users is a massively complicated task, and it’s an unfair burden to place on consumers.

Important caveat: If you know a company relies on prison labor and want to stop supporting it, you should absolutely do that. You should also tell your friends and family to do the same, write to the CEO, and take whatever action you can. And you should demand that companies divest from their vast prison-industrial complex holdings. 

But to me, the prison-industrial complex can be more effectively torn apart by holding lawmakers accountable. This isn’t a problem that can be solved with a viral “avoid these businesses” post. We have to learn how to more effectively lobby lawmakers on state and federal levels.

Because that’s where the worst of the worst decisions regarding prison labor are being made.

Make no mistake—the prison system breeds modern slavery. Did you know there are prisoners in Texas being paid nothing to pick cotton? Or that Black Americans are incarcerated at five times the rate of white Americans? Or that nearly one in three federal prisoners are Latinx?

Beyond those clearly racist and deeply disturbing facts, the prison labor system specifically creates an environment ripe for recidivism: Some 45% of former prisoners assessed in a recent Justice Department survey were arrested within one year of release.

It is in states’ best interests to keep prisons stocked with cheap laborers—it makes them money. Consider the example of labor-intensive agricultural work, like picking tomatoes or apples. 

There’s also Federal Prison Industries, operated by the Bureau of Prisons, which pays inmates about 90 cents per hour (6% of New York City’s minimum wage) to make everything from mattresses to body armor. It earned $500 million in sales in 2016.

It’s no wonder, then, why we haven’t seen any meaningful effort to replace labor programs with rehabilitation programs. Perhaps we wouldn’t have the highest incarceration rate in the world if such programs existed.

So what can we do? We can demand more than just higher wages for incarcerated laborers. We need to completely rethink the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, widely considered the loophole through which the prison labor system grew.

Legislative reform to the 13th Amendment isn’t some outlandish proposal, either. In the U.S. House of Representatives, legislation has been introduced that would amend the law to prohibit any type of slavery.  H.J. Res. 92 was introduced earlier this summer and referred to the House Committee on the Judiciary.

That kind of action is what we need, and we need it immediately. 

Even if you’re not a voting member of Congress, you can still take action.

  1. Learn more about the 13th Amendment, its context, and historical interpretations.
  2. Watch films like 13th from celebrated filmmaker Ava DuVernay.
  3. Write a letter or email to your local, state, and federal legislators.

My thought bubble: Despite the moral superiority we might feel from “voting with our wallets,” the real way to effect change is to...actually vote. So go do it, and hold your elected officials at every level accountable.

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