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Experts urge Congress to reform prison labor

Thanks to an exception in the 13th Amendment, incarcerated people can be forced to work for little to no pay under dangerous conditions, a panel of witnesses told lawmakers.

By: Benjamin S. Weiss

Published: May 21, 2024, Courthouse News Service

WASHINGTON (CN) — A group of prison reform activists called on members of Congress Tuesday to support legislation — or even a constitutional amendment — addressing what they say is an exploitative system of labor in U.S. prisons.

Incarcerated people in federal prisons don’t just work as cooks or janitors within prison walls. In some states, prison labor is used to fight wildfires or maintain infrastructure — but prisoners are paid little, or sometimes nothing at all, in return.

“Incarcerated workers are not covered by minimum wage laws and are paid an average of 13 to 52 cents per hour in non-industry jobs,” Jennifer Turner, principal human rights researcher at the American Civil Liberties Union, told the Senate Judiciary Committee during a hearing Tuesday afternoon.

More than 80% of prison maintenance jobs are compensated on the low end of that spectrum, Turner said, and in several states incarcerated people are not paid at all for most work. Even in states that do pay their prison laborers, she added, workers can see as much as 80% of their paycheck seized for maintenance costs, room and board and other expenses.

In many prisons, labor is also involuntary, Turner pointed out. More than three-quarters of incarcerated workers say that they’re forced to work, and if they refuse, they could face punishment such as solitary confinement or loss of family visits.

Cory Booker 05/21/2024
Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Criminal Justice and Counterterrorism Chair Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., speaks during a hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, May 21, 2024, to examine forced labor in prisons. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

Such forced labor is legal thanks to the Constitution’s 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery in the U.S. The amendment includes a provision excluding slavery “as punishment for a crime.” “States have turned to incarcerated labor as a means of partially replacing chattel slavery,” Turner argued, “and the free labor slavery provided.”

People in prison can also be subject to more dangerous working conditions and less regulatory oversight, said Andrea Armstrong, a professor at Loyola University College of Law.

“Incarcerated workers, especially those working for the prison itself, are not considered employees by federal agencies or by courts,” she told senators. “The coercive context of incarcerated labor, combined with the lack of protection or remedies, makes incarcerated labor exploitative, and dangerous working conditions behind bars can kill and injure incarcerated workers.”

The threat of punishment for refusing to comply with forced labor also deters some people from advocating for their own safety, Armstrong said. The witnesses backed legislative reforms for prison labor but also suggested that Congress should consider amending the Constitution once more to remove the criminal exemption from the 13th Amendment’s slavery ban.

Workers in prison should receive the same wages, overtime pay, safety standards and unionization privileges as other Americans, they said. Some lawmakers have already come out in support of reforming prison labor. New Jersey Senator Cory Booker, who sits on the Judiciary Committee, unveiled a bill last year that, if made law, would require prisoners to be paid the federal minimum wage. The legislation would also do away with certain wage reductions that have previously slashed earnings for prison labor.

Speaking at Tuesday’s hearing, Booker framed the push for better prison working conditions as necessary given the country’s history of slavery and exploitation. “We know that it’s hard to reconcile a lot of practices with the democratic ideals of our country, but we must face them together so that we ultimately address it,” he said. “Our prisons should reflect the best of who we are … and they should, in my strong opinion, be places that are not just for punishment, but for rehabilitation.”

Not every Judiciary Committee lawmaker agreed, though. Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton said it was “a vicious and ugly smear” against U.S. prison workers to compare the modern prison system to slavery. He accused Democrats of “pursuing an ideological agenda” with such an approach. “Prisons are dangerous places full of dangerous people,” said Cotton, a Republican. “Given nothing to occupy their time, prisoners will usually regress back to doing what they were sent to prison for in the first place.”

The Arkansas senator cited a 1930 report from the Judiciary Committee, which found that idle time in prisons “breeds disorder and aggravates criminal tendencies.” Further, he added, there is nothing illegal or unconstitutional about forcing incarcerated people to work for little or no pay.

After sparring with the witnesses on issues such as injury compensation for prisoners and prison labor unions — policies which some said they support — Louisiana Senator John Kennedy decried what he called “emotional arguments” from the pro-reform experts.

“People are in prison for a reason,” said the Republican lawmaker. “I believe in free will. I just don’t think these emotional arguments are productive, and they’re not trying to solve a problem.”

Meanwhile, Charles Lehman, a fellow at the Washington-based Manhattan Institute, cautioned against any move to eliminate prison labor entirely, pointing to studies that show benefits for people who work while in prison. “Any reforms to federal prison labor practices should incorporate a commitment to research what works,” he told lawmakers. “That said, the evidence suggests that having incarcerated people work makes them more employable and less likely to reoffend. On this basis alone, we ought to see prison labor as part of the rehabilitation equation.”

Turner, for her part, acknowledged that allowing people to work while serving their sentences could prove valuable. But that’s not sustainable under the current system, she said. “We all have an interest in prison work being something beyond pure punitive exploitation,” Turner argued. “Yet despite the potential for prison labor to facilitate rehabilitation, the existing system very often offers nothing beyond exploitation.”

Benjamin S. Weiss

The Courthouse News Service

May 21, 2024


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