Behind Bars

Prison Slave Labor

By Margaret Kimberley

Michelle Alexander’s ground breaking book, The New Jim Crow, is an outstanding expose of the horrors of America’s criminal justice system that are perpetrated against Black people. It is well documented proof of what many have long observed, that get tough policies on drug enforcement and “three strikes” laws are targeted towards the masses of often non-violent Black Americans and are used to make money for private entities and for all levels of government.

The penitentiary manufactured license plate was long ago joined by more sophisticated methods of exploitation. Prisoners not only work in a variety of jobs without compensation, but are often fined and forced to pay for their incarceration. Obviously they end their sentences owing money and are permanent debtors, susceptible to be consumed by the system again and again.

Recent events indicate a new level of horror in the planning stages. The prison and jail system is perfecting its methods of extracting free labor. Perhaps the system ought to be called the new slavery.

In the state of Georgia, a recently enacted law targeting undocumented workers was deemed insufficiently evil and needed the addition of greater exploitation of people of color. The new legislation allows police to profile brown skinned people and also makes it illegal for the undocumented to work, to be housed, or even to be transported. But as in the rest of the country, Georgia’s agricultural work force is comprised almost completely of undocumented migrant workers. Having chased these people away, the state was at a loss as to how to keep its farms afloat after their labor force fled.

The solution to the conundrum was simple but leads to a slippery slope which invites further abuse in an already inherently abusive situation. The state offered to pay probationers to do the farm work instead. The experiment drew a few desperate people, who did not have the wherewithal, knowledge or training needed to harvest crops in the midst of a heat wave.

The plan may have initially failed, but the setback is surely only temporary and the trend towards normalizing labor exploitation is being perfected and honed to make it more successful in many parts of the country. In Racine County, Wisconsin, the evisceration of public employee union rights has spawned an effort to give jobs that were once reserved for union employees to prisoners instead. These prisoners would not be paid with money; they would only earn the right to reduce their sentences. The public union collective bargaining contracts that are now null and void had barred the state from this practice. The right-wing has figured out how to kill two birds with one stone. In one fell swoop, public unions were decimated and prisoners will be subject to greater exploitation.

It is difficult to fight against the diminution of rights of persons who are incarcerated or otherwise under judicial supervision. The average American has been given a steady dose of fear related to crime, even as crime rates have fallen. The racism which equates criminality with Black people makes it all the more easy to continue the rates of incarceration which mark victims with lifetimes of unemployment, loss of voting rights, and even the loss of the right to live in certain places.

Black Americans can be just as susceptible to the appeals to fear and self-loathing. We are afraid too, and don’t want to be associated with people who are labeled and stigmatized as deserving of endless punishment, including the punishment of working for nothing. The ability to advocate for the rights of prisoners is therefore a difficult one, with few natural allies other than the incarcerated themselves.

However, it is necessary to persevere before these new schemes gain a stronger foothold. The mania to save government dollars and the American propensity to punish and permanently criminalize vast numbers of Black people will combine to make these new policies extremely popular. The prison system is already highly profitable, and any means of making more money will have a high level of appeal for politicians and for the public too.

The United States now has more individuals under the control of the criminal justice system than any other country on earth. Dictatorships universally condemned as “evil” don’t put as many people behind bars as the United States does. It is but one sign of America’s decline and inevitable demise as a democratic nation. The hunger to exploit and debase people of color is like other injustices. They will be resurrected and they will multiply unless there is a commitment to prevent that from happening.

Margaret Kimberley’s Freedom Rider column appears weekly in BAR, and is widely reprinted elsewhere. She maintains a frequently updated blog as well as at Ms. Kimberley can be reached via e-Mail at:

Black Agenda Report, July 20, 2011