A History of US Labor and the Reinstitution of Slavery

After the abolition of chattel slavery, the US government continued de facto slavery through the use of its prison system, imprisoning black Americans for long periods of time for minor crimes, and subsequently forcing them to work while in prison.

Today, this system continues. The racist “War on Drugs” has, in particular, helped to fuel this 21st-century racism.

A brief history of US labor in 4 parts:

  1. Slavery and indentured servitude
  2. Radical leftists (not liberals, although they try to take credit for it) fight and die abolishing slavery and then demanding living wages and working conditions
  3. Corporations, discontent with living wages eating into their potential profits, outsource labor, paying non-living wages to workers elsewhere, leaving Americans unemployed
  4. Using the overtly racist “War on Drugs” as an excuse, the state imprisons exorbitant amounts of unemployed, impoverished Americans, disproportionately people of color, who then have to work for zero or close-to-zero wages, returning to step 1


Today we are at stage 4, the re-institution of slavery:

Republic Report asks “Are Prison Labor Companies Lobbying to Keep Prisoners in Jail for Nonviolent Offenses?

The short answer is “Yes.”

The long answer is “Yes. And it’s even worse than you thought.”

Prison Slave Labor

Correctional Vendors Association, Republic Report notes, is a lobbying “organization that represents companies that use prison labor to produce everything from furniture to clothing goods,” which those companies then sell for billions and billions in profit.

Federal Prison Industries Inc., is “a government-owned corporation that is part of the U.S. Bureau of Prisons, employs thousands of federal inmates to work at an assortment of prison factories and workshops that produces over $900 million in goods for various contractors, including military clothing. Critics have accused the system for exploiting prison labor—many earning between 12 cents and 40 cents per hour—to the detriment of American businesses and free labor.”

And, believe it or not, $0.12-0.40 per hour is higher than what many private prisons pay today. These “efficient” privatized prison corporations pay a whopping $0 per hour. And Democrats and Republicans alike cannot get enough of their capitalist efficiency!

I’ve written about this before. It just keeps getting worse.

The system is quite simple. Prison capitalists solicit harsher immigration restrictions, as it guarantees them more prisoners—and ergo higher profits. The private prison lobby, ever-insidious and ever-growing, is not-so-quietly whispering in the ears of every important politician in Washington—well, after stuffing wads of cash (try millions overall) in their pockets. And, you got it!, Obama thinks the new system is a fantastic idea. …

“The Obama administration spent more money on immigration enforcement in the last fiscal year than all other federal law enforcement agencies combined.” $18 billion. In 2010, Obama nominated Stacia Hylton—a consultant with very close relationships to the two largest for-profit prison companies, GEO and CCA—as director of the United States Marshals Service. Such an appointment was widely, and vociferously, panned by some of the most prominent human rights and criminal justice organizations, yet to no avail.

Daniel Cooney, chairman of the board of a Rhode Island immigrant detention center, let the ulterior modus operandi of these private detention centers slip when he insisted “Frankly, I’m looking at it like I’m running a Motel 6. I don’t care if it’s Guantanamo Bay. We want to fill the beds.” Prison as Motel 6. Welcome to dystopia.

“Prison Labor Booms As Unemployment Remains High; Companies Reap Benefits,” a recent article is titled. It notes the U.S.’ criticism of China’s forced-labor policies, but its own commensurate forced labor policies in private prisons, with prisoners, making close-to-zero or even zero wages, working for long hours in outrageous conditions, sometimes without adequate water. Yet Uncle Sam’s lip service to human rights, its critique of other countries guilty of the very same crimes it regularly engages in, is certainly nothing new—in fact, if anything, it is the defining narrative of all U.S. history.

What the ACLU didn’t note in its report is the very intimate connection between anti-immigration policies and this privatized prison psychosis. “Nearly half of all immigrants detained by federal officials are held in facilities run by private prison companies.” In an exemplary “voluntary” work program in a private detention center in Georgia, detained immigrants are paid only one dollar per day.

In this way, capitalism, discontent with mere wage slavery and immiseration, has found a way to reinstitute chattel slavery: The State—the slave master—sells its slaves to the highest bidders—private prisons—who force their slaves to work for external corporations (with State subsidies and tax breaks, of course) until their prison sentence is (if ever) up. The “War on Terror”—terror in response to Uncle Sam’s much greater terror in the “Muslim world”—justifies frenzied xenophobia, racism against all immigrants, which allows a crackdown on all immigration, insuring a steady flow of (mostly Latino) “illegal” slave labor into private prisons.

Products Made by Prison Slave Labor

What Do Prisoners Make for Victoria’s Secret?” Mother Jones asked in 2008. The article notes prisoners:

  • process more than 100s of 1000s of pounds of beef, chicken, milk, bread, and eggs
  • package Starbucks coffees and Nintendo Game Boys (in 2001, a Starbucks representative said this was “entirely consistent with our mission statement”—of course it was, capitalism has only one mission and one mission alone: profit)
  • produce brooms, brushes, bedding, mattresses, toilets, sinks, showers, and bullwhips
  •  shrink-wrap Windows software and mouses
  • recycle old PCs and electronics (Mother Jones notes this practice was “stopped after a watchdog group warned that it might expose inmates to toxins”—now corporations just outsource their waste so economically disadvantaged children in the Global South can get cancer picking through it for valuable minerals and parts)
  • make dorm furniture, lockers, diploma covers, binders, logbooks, library book carts, locker room benches, and juice boxes
  • create soldiers’ uniforms, bedding, shoes, helmets, flak vests, missile cables, and wiring harnesses for jets and tanks
  • cut airplane components – make police officers’ duty belts, handcuff cases, gun containers, creepers (to peek under vehicles), human-silhouette targets, and, no joke, prison-cell accessories (this is beyond cruel and unusual)
  • sew lingerie and leisure wear for Victoria’s Secret and JCPenney (Mother Jones notes that, in “1997, a California prison put two men in solitary for telling journalists they were ordered to replace ‘Made in Honduras’ labels on garments with ‘Made in the USA'”)
  • produce a complete prosthesis selection, including custom trays, try-ins, bite blocks, and dentures
  • help build Wal-Mart distribution centers
  • sew their own garb (this is beyond beyond cruel and unusual)

Mother Jones writes:

Its inmate call centers are the “best kept secret in outsourcing,” Unicor boasts. In 1994, a contractor for GOP congressional hopeful Jack Metcalf hired Washington state prisoners to call and remind voters he was pro-death penalty. Metcalf, who prevailed, said he never knew.

And the situation has gotten even worse since then, with the rise of private prisons, which are all the fashion today.

Two phrases: Prison-Industrial Complex and 21-Century Slavery.