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Kirah Pringle

Profesor Emily Kretzer

English 1201

21 March 2019

Prison Reform and Modern Day Slavery

Imagine working all day in very poor conditions, doing someone else’s job, and only

getting paid on average .14 cents an hour. You have a family to provide for and have to provide

for yourself with only $20 a week, at most. On top of that, you’re not getting any of the benefits

from a normal job such as disability or workers compensation if there is an injury, Social

Security withholdings, sick time, or even overtime pay. You’re probably thinking that this type

of treatment is morally wrong, but would your opinion change if I included that we were talking

about prisoners?

Well, it shouldn’t have. The over criminalization of prisoners plays a huge role in how it

is seen acceptable to mistreat and use inmates for work that can be closely compared to slavery.

Prison systems across the United States have not only been profiting from the work of inmates,

but they have also saved millions in doing so. They are used, mistreated, and exploited for their

work. If this was any other group of individuals society wouldn’t turn a blind eye to the

situations that they have to deal with everyday. Slavery was abolished in America in 1865,

however when looking at the prison system, it becomes frightening how similar the treatment is.

The prison industry in the United States is no longer about rehabilitation of prisoners, but rather

using them for profit and enabling the practice of modern day slavery. In this essay, I would like

to focus on prisoners who have committed nonviolent crimes, meaning that their crimes didn’t

involve any force or harm to another person.

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Inmates that are in the United States prisons have been put to work without benefits of

what a normal worker would get and in conditions that are not suitable for a safe workplace. This

can closely be compared to slavery because the prisoners are not getting paid an adequate

amount of money for the work they are doing and aren’t even in good conditions to do so. Laurie

Hazen, an inmate at Massachusetts Correctional Institution, tells Pacific Standard that “The

cramped room where she worked had no windows and routinely filled with steam from the 200-

degree dishwasher. There was one tiny fan.” She continues sharing that her experience in this job

was “pretty much slave labor," [and] she says, "but there was nothing I could do about that. I

needed stamps to write to my child. I needed hygiene products." This is not fair treatment

because these inmates need these jobs to provide for their family and themselves. Going without

a job while serving time could result in even more troubles with money when they get out. Not

only this, but also they won’t be able to access necessities at the commissary and most prisoners

have a family that is depending on them for money.

Somebody has to have the prisoners interest in mind and this puts most prisoners in a

situation that isn’t safe or morally right in order to make things work. Not claiming that they

shouldn’t serve time for their crimes, but rather they shouldn’t be in conditions that inhumane

and receiving wages that are not sufficient. Another story is of Glenn Martin. After not earning

enough money from working inside the prison when he was released he tells Pacific Standard

that “It's insurmountable pressure," [and] he says. "Either I do something wrong to pay off the

fines and fees, or I relegate myself to a debtors' prison or a lifetime of poverty." By not giving

prisoners enough money to begin with while they work inside the prison, there is no way they

can be successful and instead just increases the appeal of committing a crime to get money to

survive. The cycle will just continue and ultimately do more harm to society.
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This is just a fraction of the stories that people who have served time come out telling and

society needs to listen to them. Just because they have committed crimes doesn’t mean their

needs do not matter anymore or that they deserve to be considered by society. The need people to

recognize their struggles in the same way everyone else’s are.

Stories like these have been happening to inmates all across the United States and the

majority of them are done dealing with it. In a recent BBC news story called “US inmates

nationwide strike to protest 'modern slavery” that was posted on August 21, 2018 covers a strike

from prisoners in retaliation of prison labor, poor prison conditions, over sentencing and

overcrowding, due to the fact that companies profit off of mass incarceration. I would like to

focus on the aspects of prison labor and poor prison conditions that were included in the reasons

why this strike happened. BBC tells us that ”In California recently, inmates have been fighting

wildfires across the state. These volunteer firefighters are paid just $1 (£0.78) an hour”.

Although these prisoners were volunteers, some still died and due to the fact that prisoners aren’t

protected by health and safety laws from work, they were not given any workers compensation

or had any protections. This is also not fair because even though the prisoners volunteered to

help, more often than not “volunteer work” is not actually up to the prisoners, but rather they are

still forced to do the job.

In addition to this, BBC provides a graph that shows how much higher the incarceration

rates the United States has in comparison to other countries. The BBC article says “The

nonpartisan nonprofit Prison Policy Initiative (PPI) reported that the US jails five times as many

people as other industrialised nations, despite having comparable levels of crime.” This is not

acceptable because there is not a reason that more people are being jailed for comparable crimes

just because they live in a different country. So not only are there way more inmates in the
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system than there needs to be, they are also doing work that no one else really wants to do

without health and safety laws or an adequate pay. Seems as if it sounds eerily similar to the

concept of slavery.

By diving into the statistics of how much inmates are receiving in each state, it becomes

easy to see how unfair these wages are. It causes thoughts to arise about how it would be

possible for anyone to live while making so little money. According to the Prison Policy

Initiative article “How much do incarcerated people earn in each state?”, the average amount of

money made per hour on the low end for a regular job (non-industry) is 0.14, on the high end it is

0.63. These wages have actually went down and note that none of these wages are even above $1

an hour. However, these statistics are not even including deductions from their paychecks.

According to Prison Policy Initiative, “New Mexico deducts 15-50% of each paycheck for a

Crime Victims Reparations Fund, discharge money, and family support”. Also it says, “In

Colorado, for example, it costs an incarcerated woman two weeks’ wages to buy a box of

tampons; maybe more if there’s a shortage”. In both of these instances, it’s easy to see how hard

it is to survive on a wage so low. With all of these costs, it becomes extremely hard to save up

for inside prison and after prison plans to be able to stay afloat. Prisoners are getting paid close

to nothing and still expected to succeed. Once again, the cycle will continue.

Now, after all of these statistics and stories of prisoners not being content with what is

happening to them, how is the government expected to increase wages? A common argument or

concern is if they are going to get paid, that the taxpayers are going to be responsible for these

wages. While, this might be true this doesn’t completely disregard that this isn’t morally right.

There needs to be some type of reformation in the prison system because the way that it is

currently working is not making anyone happy beside the people that are earning and saving
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money from it. Although, minimum wages for prisoners is not likely this does not mean that they

should be suffering through work that is similar to actual slave labor. They need laws that in

favor for their protection or they should work jobs that are actually going to help them when they

re-enter society.

Prisoners are not happy and it becomes clear through the statistics from before. After all

of this, questions are probably coming up as to how exactly the prison industry is benefiting from

all this. Roger Ross investigates how the government and private companies are benefiting from

the labor that prisoners are forced to do with little to no pay across the country in the video “Are

American prisoners modern day slaves?” from the BBC Youtube channel. In the video, Ross

talks to a superintendent and informs his audience that the majority of road signs are created for

the government by prisoners who are paid less than .70 cents an hour for their work. This

blatantly shows how prisoners are essentially slaves to the state and are getting paid way below

minimum wage to do “favors” for the government. Another point that Ross shares is that not

only are the prisoners doing this free work for the government, but they are also running every

job imaginable in the institution besides being guards. This ability to use prisoners for free to run

the prison saves the institution hundreds of millions of dollars. In the video Ross talks to Beth

Schwartzapfel about the type of jobs that most prisoners are working and she says, “They are

doing plumbing, they are doing maintenance, they are doing custodial and janitorial services

cleaning, they are cooking food, they are serving food. Literally anything that you can think of

that is needed to run a prison.” The inmates are basically running the prison and do not get paid

for any of it. Instead, it is just an easy way for the prison to save money and not actually have to

give proper wages to working people. Inmates across the United States are just being used for

their work. There is no consideration of their lives or them working towards being a better
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person, simply, they are just being used for the work they provide to the government, private

prisons, and the prison industry in whole. Towards the end of the video, there are mentions of

how certain companies such as WholeFoods, Amazon, and Starbucks that are actually benefiting

from the labor of these inmates.

It seems as if for most companies that have investments in work made for Third World

labor are actually being replaced by prison labor in the United States instead. It is becoming that

big of an economic boom to companies and it seems that no one is even noticing that it is a

problem. Third World labor is already bad enough and seeing it be compared to the labor

inmates are forced to do really shows the magnitude of the problem. Private prisons are trying to

continue to increase the amount of large inmates in the system to benefit their finances. In this

article “The Prison Industry in the United States: Big Business or a New Form of Slavery”,

Pelaez explains to the audience just how much private prisons and corporations are benefitting

from the amount of prisoners at their institutions and due to this, the system tries to put more in

more people in so that they receive even more profit. Pelaez shares that companies such as

“IBM, Boeing, Motorola, Microsoft, AT&T, Wireless, Texas Instrument, Dell, Compaq,

Honeywell, Hewlett-Packard, Nortel, Lucent Technologies, 3Com, Intel, Northern Telecom,

TWA, Nordstrom, Revlon, Macy’s, Pierre Cardin, [and] Target Stores” are all using prison labor

for economical advances. On top of that Pelaez gives details that, “Just between 1980 and 1994,

profits went up from $392 million to $1.31 billion”. The profits from prison labor are just getting

higher, but as I mentioned before the wages that inmates are receiving from this work have went

down. They are being used for cheap labor and it is resembling the ways of slavery.
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In regards to private prisons, which are “Prison facilities run by private prison

corporations whose services and beds are contracted out by state governments or the Federal

Bureau of Prisons (BOP).” defined by the Bureau of Justice Statistics. It is surprising to see the

extent they will go to in order to receive money from these inmates. The more inmates that are

on file in the system, the more money private prisons receive. This becomes a problem because it

causes private prisons are regular prisons to import and export their inmates and also increases

overcrowding. It becomes a business and the prisoners are their machines. By increasing

overcrowding in prisons it can result in a strike or riot, as I mentioned before. This is not what

needs to be happening in prisons, it just increases the danger of serving time. Which should not

be a dangerous activity at all. Pelaez sparks an interesting point and says “Profits are so good that

now there is a new business: importing inmates with long sentences, meaning the worst

criminals.” Overcrowding in a prison with people that have the worst criminal history, doesn’t

sound like it would result well and doesn’t sound like there’s an idea of rehabilitation. Only


It is apparent that people of color and people in poverty are the ones that usually get the

short end of the stick because of the history in the United States. The War on Drugs, which is
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many actions and laws put in place to prevent illegal drug trade, has had a huge impact on these

communities. Investigating poor communities or communities with a large persons of color

population influenced the mass amount of people in prison today. In the article, “From Slavery to

Prisons: A Historical Delineation of the Criminalization of African Americans”, Deborah Burris-

Kitchen and Paul Burris make an interesting point about how the 1986 Crime Control Bill was

particularly damaging to african americans. They go on to explain that this bill “called for a

mandatory minimum sentence of five years for crimes involving 100 grams of heroin, 500 grams

of cocaine, or just 5 grams of crack.” This is a ridiculously long amount of time for a nonviolent

crime and when applied to how private prisons earn money, it becomes that much more


They also state, “Blacks make up about 12% of the U.S. population, and in 1980 they

made up 23% of the prison population; by the late 1980s, they made up 40% of the prison

population and over 60% of those people in prison charged with possession of narcotics.” Which

plays even more into the idea that they are being incarcerated in order to boost the profit of

prisons because they are such an easy target to society. The government has been targeting poor

people and minorities because they are vulnerable in the eyes of society and it is easier to get

away with. This allows the profit of private prisons and the prison industry to be even easier to

boost and the incentive to not stop only stronger. This not humane to be put to work in poor

condition, over sentenced, and more just for money.

Currently, there isn’t much focus on reformation, however that doesn’t mean that there

aren’t ways for it to be improved. Brandon W. Mathews spoke on the topic titled “The surprising

reason our correctional system doesn't work” on the Tedx Talks youtube channel. In this video,

Mathews discusses why the prison system isn’t working and how it is only focusing on the
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punishment aspect of prison, when in reality there should be more rehabilitation Mathews

introduces the idea of a two track system for non-violent prisoners or prisoners who need

reformation and then prisoners who have committed crimes that are too wrong to get treatment.

He also tells his audience that, “within 3 years, the return to prison rate in the U.S is 67.8, which

is more than half, and he compares to the way Norway operates that focuses on recovery and not

pushishment, which has a return rate that is only 20%.” So, obviously the United States could

use a different approach to it’s process.

In addition to this, focusing on the recovery aspect of prison instead of punishment, it

allows prisoners to re-enter society with a greater chance to be successful in their communities.

This can also be applied to improving wages because by doing these two things, among much

more, the return rate and crime rates would dramatically decrease. This something that needs to

happen in order to improve communities and improve lives across the United States. Other

countries have proved it, however nothing will change if these companies aren’t guaranteed their

money in return. If it hadn’t been discovered that companies can sneak around and make billions

off of prison work, then it is not doubtful that prison reform would be achievable very easily.

In closing, it is painfully obvious that the intention of the prison systems across the

United States is to not teach and provide recovery for inmates so that they can successfully learn

from their mistakes and come back into society. It is becoming more about the money aspect of

the system and getting prisoners to do work so that the prison and/or government doesn’t have to

pay people outside of the prison to do it. I think that the prison systems are in need of a serious

fix because the way it is operating now is definitely not the best way to get the job done. People

who are currently serving time are not being benefitted or helped and the community when

prisoners are released are not getting any better. There are ways to implement a two track system
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in order to provide reformation, but something like that will not happen until companies decide

to stop using prisoners for profit and stop treating them as slaves and more like people that are

living on the outside world.

Kirah Pringle

Profesor Emily Kretzer

English 1201

21 March 2019

Works Cited

Are American prisoners modern day slaves? - BBC. Youtube, BBC, Oct 10, 2018,


Burris-Kitchen, Deborah, and Paul Burris. “From Slavery to Prisons: A Historical

Delineation of the Criminalization of African Americans.” Journal of Global Intelligence

& Policy, vol. 4, no. 5, June 2011, pp. 1–16. EBSCOhost,

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Peláez, Vicky. “The Prison Industry in the United States: Big Business or a New Form of

Slavery?” Global Research, 24 Feb. 2019, www.globalresearch.ca/the-prison-industry-in-


Sawyer, Wendy. “How Much Do Incarcerated People Earn in Each State?” Prison Policy

Initiative, Prison Policy Initiative, 10 Apr. 2017,


Schwartzapfel, Beth. “Taking Freedom: Modern-Day Slavery in America's Prison

Workforce.” Pacific Standard, Tempest, 12 Apr. 2018, psmag.com/social-justice/taking-


Talks, TEDx, director. The Surprising Reason Our Correctional System Doesn't Work .

YouTube, YouTube, 13 Sept. 2017, www.youtube.com/watch?v=LmvrBGmu9k4&t=2s.

“US Inmates Nationwide Strike to Protest 'Modern Slavery'.” BBC News, BBC, 21 Aug.

2018, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-45261381
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