Slavery Exists In Prison, And It’s Constitutional

Most of us were taught in public school that the Thirteenth Amendment outlawed slavery, which is mostly true except for one detail.

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, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.

It’s an understandable exclusion, provided it’s tempered with other understandings, such as the fact that the people in prison remain human beings, not chattel. And that seems to be primary reason why there is a national prison strike happening now, from August 21 to September 9 (the anniversary of the Attica Riot), 2018.

Incarcerated people in at least seventeen states are expected to protest from August 21 to September 9 for “humane living conditions, access to rehabilitation, sentencing reform, and the end of modern day slavery.”

There is a long list of serious and unjustifiable problems with living conditions, ranging from absurd overcrowding to sufficiency and edibility of food. From violence to rape. Some problems vary from institution to institution, place to place, such as the insufferable heat in southern prisons in summer. Other problems are pervasive and systemic.

Before you write them off with the mind-numbingly stupid “if you didn’t want to be in prison, you shouldn’t have committed the crime,” bear in mind that some were sentenced for trivial offense, trumped up into serious crimes by inane policies such as three strikes and zero tolerance. Others may not be guilty at all, but end up there by default. Some made one terrible mistake, but are otherwise decent people (like you, except they got caught and you didn’t), and still others. And yes, there are also bad dudes in prison.

But no one is sentenced to prison to be beaten, raped, starved, denied medical care, or tortured by placement in SHU, solitary confinement. And though they are “out of sight, out of mind” to you, that’s not the case for them. Solitary, sometimes for years, many years, is unsustainable for human beings. Yet, it persists, present day torture.

And then there’s death. When someone is sentenced to prison, it’s not a death sentence. But it can end up as one, whether from the other prisoners, the guards, the lack of medical care or suicide.

The strike has a list of demands, which are unfortunately vague, likely of necessity since they try to cover a vast landscape of problems, but providing little by way of specifics that can be addressed.

  1. Immediate improvements to conditions and policies that recognize humanity of men and women
  2. Immediate end to prison slavery, paid prevailing wage in their state or territory
  3. Rescind [the Prison Litigation Reform Act] to give incarcerated a proper channel to address grievances and rights violations
  4. Truth In Sentencing Act and Sentencing Reform Act rescinded for possibility of rehab and parole. No sentencing to death by incarceration or any sentence without possibility of parole
  5. End to “racial overcharging, over-sentencing, and parole denials of black and brown humans.” Black humans no longer to be denied parole because victim was white, a particular concern in southern states.
  6. End to racist gang enhancements
  7. No human denied access to rehab because they’re labeled violent
  8. State prisons must be funded specifically to offer more rehab services
  9. Pell grants must be reinstated
  10. Voting rights for all (pre-present-post incarceration)

The first demand, that “recognize the humanity” of prisoners, sounds nice, and is of the sort adored by the under- and excessively-educated, but provides no useful insight. It’s not that their point is wrong, as they’re treated, viewed, as some subhuman species whose life, pain, suffering is unworthy of being given the concern we would give a house pet. But whether saying this will give rise to any meaningful change in conditions, which are left unsaid, is questionable.

The second demand, however, is quite concrete, and similarly unrealistic. Prison will never be an opportunity to earn a reasonable living, nor should it be. It is, among other things, a punishment. This is where the Thirteenth Amendment comes into play, where inmates can be forced to work for no pay, like slaves.

There’s a lot wrapped up in prison work, as the inmates sustain the functioning of the prison which would otherwise require paid employees to do the work. Life there would be insufferably boring without work to do. But the prison-industrial system, where there labor substitutes for work that would have to be paid for otherwise, whether breaking rocks or making license plates, or leased out to businesses to profit off their punishment, emits a terrible stench.

Most of the other demands fall into the categories of safety, which shouldn’t be a question as prisoners’ sentences never include suffering physical harm in addition to confinement, but has never been a priority for a great many reasons, not the least of which is the lack of concern for their humanity. No one should ever be raped in prison. No judge would ever sentence a defendant to be raped. Yet, it happens. It’s inexcusable.

Rehabilitation is another major prong, and it’s sound policy if one of the points of prison is to end recidivism. If people can’t leave prison and move forward to a productive life, then what are they expected to do? Yet rehab (and support services, like jobs and housing, and laws making it difficult or impossible to work, from SORA to licensure to the “have you ever been convicted” box) is sorely inadequate, if it exists at all.

The final demand, the vote, may be too much for those currently serving sentences, but there is no rational basis to deny this constitutional right to anyone whose sentence has been completed. They did their time and get their rights back, including the right to vote. So what if you feel they don’t deserve it. Most people don’t “deserve” it, but it’s our right. Theirs, too. And there is no sound reason to deny human beings who have paid their dues to society the rights afforded and protected by the Constitution.

So will this national prison strike accomplish anything? Few people outside prisons and the activist community have a clue it’s happening. And if they did, they wouldn’t care. Prisoners want to strike? So what? After all they’re prisoners, and the Thirteenth Amendment says we can treat them like slaves. But this isn’t about them, but us. Prison isn’t going to be fun and profitable, but it surely should be safe and more useful to ending crime by turning people out better than they went in.

13 thoughts on “Slavery Exists In Prison, And It’s Constitutional

      1. Guitardave

        Get this!….Costello wrote Complicated Shadows for a” Johnny Cash” does covers album, but it didn’t make it on….god knows why, it’s a GREAT tune…any time i play it i get the…”did you write that?”…and I say…” I wish” and cred EC. Cool sync, Scott.

        1. Lucas Beauchamp

          Many California towns would have scanned just as well as Reno: Fresno, Stockton, Oakland, Long Beach, Berkeley, Napa, Fremont, Gilroy, Larkspur, Felton. Or he could have used nicknames like Paso, Sacto, or Dago. But never Frisco.

          I could never figure out what train runs by Folsom and on down to San Antone.

  1. B. McLeod

    The constitutional language may increasingly pose an issue for litigation as to when the free labor is part of the “punishment for a crime.” In the day, sentences expressed as time “at hard labor”were common. Today it is uncommon to see such a proviso actually incorporated in the sentence. Judges may not even know the facility to which the convict will be routed, let alone the labor practices that prevail there. If the free labor is not fairly part of the sentence, that would appear to cast some doubt on whether it is part of the state punishment for the crime, as opposed to an additional penalty stacked on extra-judicially.

    1. SHG Post author

      There is a difference between jobs maintaining the prison (cleaning, cooking), jobs that serve the general interest (road cleaning, wild fire fighting) and labor leased out to for-profit businesses. Then there is the question of whether it’s mandatory or voluntary (like the firefighting). Each presents different issues.

      1. Richard Kopf


        Resort to the original public meaning of the penal exception in the 13th Amendment and everything will be clear.

        All the best.

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