Is Slave Labor Still Legal In America?

Across the U.S., prisoners are forced to work and punished if they refuse. Is prison labor comparable to slave labor?

Did you know that slavery still exists in America? And it's perfectly legal. Because according to the 13th Amendment you can use slavery to punish a criminal.

"Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States."

It's not the type of slavery you're probably imagining - workers toiling away in the hot sun on a chain gang or in a cotton field, but it is most often manual labor. Think Piper Chapman and her fellow female inmates painstakingly sewing panties for hours at a time on Orange is the New Black. Actually that storyline isn't too far from reality. Prisoners all over the country work jobs in carpentry, sewing, mining, packaging, and in some cases even making artisanal cheeses. In fact, Whole Foods recently got a lot of criticism for selling high-end cheese made by Colorado prisoners.

RELATED: What Happens When You're Born in Prison?

Colorado Corrections Industries, the organization that makes the arrangement for private companies to pay for prison labor, argues that the program gives inmates the opportunity to make more money than any other prison job they would have access to otherwise. In comparison to the outside world their salary is unlivable, but in prison they not only have an opportunity to earn more money than they would doing prison maintenance, but they're getting valuable work experience too. Many inmates have never had a real job when they're incarcerated. These manual labor jobs teach them the skills they need to join the workforce when they're released.

The American Civil Liberties Union also points out that many prisoners want to work. I know that if I were in prison I would definitely want to work as opposed to sitting around all day, searching for a way to pass the time. I think it would give me a sense of purpose. But the problem with this system is that because the workers are in prison there is a lot of opportunity for abuse. When it comes down to it, this really is slave labor. Inmates are forced to work and can be punished if they refuse. Sometimes this even includes solitary confinement which is basically my worst nightmare. I can't imagine being alone in a tiny room for days, or longer, with NOTHING to do. No books, no crossword puzzles, not even a notepad to doodle on. No wonder people literally go insane after experiencing solitary.

There's also no requirement that prisoners are paid. When they are paid it's essentially because the state is just choosing to be a nice guy. This means there are huge disparities in wages, but in general most are paid under a dollar an hour. This can translate into states trying to keep as many prisoners as possible. Last year California was required to release some prisoners due to overcrowding, but the state tried to fight this for fear of losing workers.

Using prison labor as a way of getting cheap or free work gets even more shocking when you look at what some southern states did after the Civil War. When the 13th Amendment was first passed and slavery was abolished, the south's economy began to suffer for lack of labor. They devised a plan to pass "vagrancy laws" so they could legally arrest black people for things like loitering. Once imprisoned, the state essentially rented them out for labor to places like plantations. The south used the loophole of the 13th Amendment, "except as a punishment for crime," to get their slaves back.

It's not 1865 anymore and prisoners are treated much better than they were in the past, but it doesn't change the fact that many inmates are still performing slave labor all over the country every single day. I can't seem to make up my mind on this one. It seems like these work programs can be a huge part of a prisoner's rehabilitation and can help them immensely when they're released. On the other hand, there are many cases where prison workers are exploited and severely mistreated.

And as many of us know, the problems with our country's prison system don't end here. America has the largest prison population in the world and it's very racially skewed. About 40% of prisoners are black even though only 13% of the entire country is. We abolished slavery 150 years ago, yet our prison system continues to use slave labor, with a disproportionate number of black men and women performing that work.

Read more about prison labor:

The Atlantic: American Slavery, Reinvented

Mother Jones: What Do Prisoners Make for Victoria's Secret?