Slave Labor in America
By Philippe Gastonne - October 09, 2015

For conscious shoppers at Whole Foods, it was a nightmare to learn that the company had US prison labor in its supply chain. After more than a year of negative publicity culminating in protests outside of its stores in Houston, Texas, Whole Foods announced last week that it will stop sourcing foods that are made with prison labor. Happy ending? Not so fast.

Corporations like Whole Foods need to be held accountable for the human rights abuses facilitated and supported within their supply chains. In the US market of prison labor, however, consumers should be aware of who extracts the lion's share of value from prison labor: federal and state governments.

The model of prison labor highlighted in the Whole Foods story involves a government-owned, corrections-operated organization partnering with for profit businesses in the production of a product or service. Corporations and industries involved in this kind of supply chain are many, and include the automotive industry, garments and as this story demonstrates, grocery products – even those of the "artisanal" variety.

However, the far more common versions of prison labor come in the form of in-house manufacturing, where the products or materials manufactured by incarcerated workers are sold to other government entities (such as schools, government offices, the military) or "big house" work, where prisoners are put to work in jobs that support the upkeep of the prison, such as running the kitchens, doing building maintenance or janitorial work.

Consider that, in the United States this labor can legally be completely involuntary and uncompensated. Refusal to work can and does come with harsh punishment. And wages, if paid at all, are far below minimum wage for the same jobs held by workers on the outside. – The Guardian, Oct. 7, 2015

Abraham Lincoln, while no friend of liberty in other respects, at least ended slavery in the American South. That was a century and a half ago. Now another form of slave labor has become common. We don't see it or think about it because it hides behind prison walls and enslaves an unpopular category of human. It is slavery nonetheless.

One could argue, of course, that making prisoners sew leather goods or build furniture is just punishment for whatever offense landed them in prison. It is far easier than the "hard labor" performed by prisoners in an earlier age. True enough, but three points reveal the injustice of modern day prison slavery.

First, many of the prisoners being forced to work are in prison for conduct that should not be criminal. Non-violent drug possession accounts for many. Others find themselves in the Big House due to irrational mandatory sentencing laws or prosecutorial overreach. These people should not be in prison at all and certainly don't deserve enslavement.

Second, forced prison labor is inconsistent with due process of law. Judges and/or juries determine guilt and assess punishment in an open, adversary process. Allowing prison wardens to mete out additional punishment in a closed, one-sided process makes a mockery of the supposedly impartial judicial system.

Third, prison labor directly enriches private parties like Whole Foods Market by letting them buy goods at artificially low prices. It creates a profit motive where none should exist. If private parties stand to gain from a higher prison population, they will naturally try to create one by whatever means they can.

Thankfully, consumer pressure convinced Whole Foods this practice is bad for business but The Guardian explains how it remains common. Will public shaming end prison slavery? Only if the public sees it as a problem. That may not be the case. Whole Foods customers are not the same as, say, Wal-Mart customers.

If low prices are the main priority, and free prison labor makes the low prices possible, many consumers will shrug and keep filling their carts.

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  • Chootee

    Good article.

  • Bill Ross

    So, if the tender symbols you labor for have purchasing value X when you contract trading your goods and services and you save symbols X for a period of time, during which time symbol counterfeiting, by the laws of supply and demand have reduced the purchasing power of X to far less…

    Is not this loss of purchasing power less (monetary inflation) than you contracted for and, the lost purchasing power is in effect the amount that you have been defrauded by, and, you, for that amount of lost purchasing power, toiled for nothing which is defacto: been enslaved

    The fact that tender symbols do not honestly represent a call on any productive economy, but are in fact, decreed wealth by those who print them, lacking any faith, or trust is WHY…

    …these fraudulent symbols are being dumped by players large (countries) and small (investors) who are “going real”, in preparation for a barter economy in which REAL goods and services, lacking fraudulent medium of exchanges which are and will be shunned.

    …and, this is just ONE of many fraudulent methodologies by which the productive are enslaved to the unproductive. What cannot go on, won’t.

    hmm… seems I am in good company in terms of opinion, but ahead of the pack regarding proving root cause:

    referring to this article, the lawful letter and intent of criminals working off their debt to society was to labor, at market rates to compensate their individual victims for harm done. This has been bait and switched to equate society with government and, victim-less crimes have, by definition, no victims to compensate and yet, prisoners are slaves.

    cui bono is the FIRST question to ask.

  • In a stateless society justice would be that which found restitution for an offence caused against another’s property (property being in self or material possession). What form a restitution took would be for a free-market ‘dispute arbitration service’ (call that a common law court if you like) to establish. A ‘court’ could establish that, (if an offender was unable or unwilling to make sufficient restitution to compensate for the damage they caused to another’s property), it was a legitimate act to capture (kidnap) and imprison (hold hostage) an offender until sufficient restitution was made.

    Restitution should not take the form of just holding the offender against their will, imprisoning them, until a sufficient period has elapsed that the harm then cause to the offender’s ‘property in their self’ was the equivalent to the harm they had originally caused in committing their offence. That is not restitution but rather it is only punishment or revenge.

    Should it be apparent that an offender will evade making restitution if they are not incarcerated, it is a legitimate use of force to ‘hold them hostage’. This is because it is legitimate to use force in defence of self and in defence of physical property. It is, therefore, legitimate to use force when seeking restitution for harm caused to property because, until restitution has been made, the offence against another’s property is still present and ongoing.

    An incarcerated offender should be given every practical opportunity to be able to make due restitution though they cannot legitimately be directly forced to do so. The offender has to make the decision, come to the understanding, that to end their incarceration they have to make the restitution found due. This is not a process of prison slave labour but rather just a process of prison labour in order to robustly ensure offenders will, and are able to, make restitution.

    • Philippe Gastonne

      Indeed As it is now, the prisoners must work but the fruits of their labor usually don’t go to the victim(s) of the original crime. They go to someone else completely unrelated. So we just compound one theft with another.

    • Lawrence Latham

      I agree fully. You have laid it out clearly and with good reasoning. (I’m sure you’ll be glad to see that!) ūüôā

      I also agree with Gastonne’s observation that the production of prison workers never goes to the original victim. As he says, another theft does not restore the victim of the original one.

      • Thank you for your kind acknowledgement of the points I covered. What I did not cover-off was how such an internment could be paid for without having a ‘state’ that takes money from the public via taxation to pay for prisons. There are many possible mechanisms that could provide such a service, for example if offenders were incarcerated (and we trust helped where possible to get on the ‘right track’) policing and insurance providers could see economies in their operational costs.

        Victims of property offensives could also wish to fund an offender’s incarceration and, if they did, clearly it would be in the victim’s interest that their offender was willing to work, at least sufficiently, to cover the costs of their time ‘inside’. This would require a replicable understanding between victim and offender where perhaps an offender could enjoy better conditions and more freedoms if they agreed to such an arraignment.

        Whilst thinking through such scenarios I was interested, and amused, to realise that the treatment of such an incarcerated offender, to encourage them to be willingly productive, is not so very different to the optimum management of a human tax-payer resource (the human herd of tax-cattle) in ‘the state’, (the modern nation-state tax-farms).

        • Lawrence Latham

          Yes, you have proposed some interesting ideas that would be certainly worth further discussion should a stateless society ever develop along with arrangements for free market solutions for incarceration and restitution for victims. Sadly, I don’t think that will happen in my lifetime. Even so, one can hope for something better than we currently have. It must be remembered, however, that an enormous bureaucracy depends upon the status quo for it’s livelihood.

  • The cost to keep the prisoners incl. heating, food, etc, in jail should of course be paid by the state/tax payers. If the poor prisoner wants to study and work in jail, it should be encouraged. You cannot sit idle all days in a prison. And if you work in jail, you should of course join the prisoners union for fair pay, etc.. Question remains, who wants to employ a prisoner to work? If I were in jail I would either study or write a best selling book. Prison work cutting stone or mining ore or loggin timber in a camp is not my style.

    • Many (if not most) of the people in U.S. prisons are functionally illiterate, and to the extent that the literate minority can read, they can’t and don’t handle abstract reasoning at all well, so their “style” is manual labor, pure and simple.

      Discussion with people presently and recently incarcerated has led me to the wholly unscientific conclusion that the greatest part of these prisoners are suffering unremitting boredom, and that’s not the trivial matter some unthinking free-worlders tend to dismiss so readily. Ever read the play “Mister Roberts” or had you even seen the 1955 movie in which Henry Fonda played the leading role?

      “But I’ve discovered, Doc, that the unseen enemy of this war is the boredom that eventually becomes a faith and, therefore, a terrible sort of suicide. l know now that the ones who refuse to surrender to it are the strongest of all.”

      For almost all of these men and women, their prison jobs – meaningless thought they might seem to YOU – are vitally important in staving off that boredom.

      And – heck – Obozo’s gonna NEED a prison job when he gets what’s properly coming to him.

      The Barack Hussein Obama II Presidential Library to be established at Gitmo, with our Indonesian-in-Chief as librarian for the rest of his miserable Muslim life.

  • Centurian

    There is another insidious version of slavery at work. The IRS refers to it as the Taxpayer Compliance Burden. So, when I deal with issues related to the illegal income tax, I can’t do billable work for my clients. That means that I spend thousands of dollars worth of my time each year, not even counting accountants and lawyers, to do the Gubment’s work for free. I get to do their work in figuring out how much of my money they can steal. That is a form of slavery.


    Made no mistake!, Job as a readaptation tool is vital element , there is people who has discovered the benefits of doing a first timel in life job only in jail

    Another point, a man in prision is COSTING US AS A SOCIETY in U.S case ( one of the highest in the world) arounf $85 per day per head, so meeting both ends is a elemental basic point of readaptation, we have to decide if i prisionmate have a saving account or pay the services we all are providing them with our taxes.

    In Europe, the inmate work is a saving account, the fellow abandon the jail with some money to he/she start with dignity an IN THE LAW a new life… U.S a inmate is a business

  • WPalmer

    I see no reason why prisoners should not be put to work.
    Removing graffiti, picking up garbage, community work of any kind, BUT NOT for ANY corporate entity.
    I dont think there should be any choice.
    The old maxim, ‘ if you dont want to do the time, dont do the crime”, What you do in that “time” should be defined by your host and the prisoners abilty to do it.
    If you are a guest of Her Majesty or the Federal Penitentiary system you forfeit your rights, except those to medical attention, adequate shelter, and adequate sustenance and the right to appeal. but that is it.
    Perhaps the reasons the prisons are so full is that it has become a nice place to be. A bit of boot camp and jankers may cause some to reflect on their chosen lifestyle.
    My recent out of pocket costs for a new side window and the loss of my GPS and other bits and pieces cost me almost $500, even if the individual was caught I would not have been compensated. I am sure I am not the only one that is sick of petty crime and the bleeding hearts an psychobabblers that encourage it.

    • usdollars76

      I agree that the bleeding hearts have just found another towel to cry on. I have lived in the same city for most of my life. I know people in all walks of life. The people I have visited in prison sought work and it was scarcely available. I can also say that the ones that did get some work were more successful after leaving prison. I can think of a couple that are very successful and are now respected in business. The lazy entitled only bring down society.

  • Myron Goodrum

    Least we forget, there is a much larger “slave” population/class in the US…us! We are economic slaves to an out of control political, military & corporate elite class of miscreants. If you want to get upset about something, try that one on for size.

    • olde reb

      You have a valid point. the courts are not concerned with the reasonableness of a tax If the POWER to tax exists, the tax can destroy the object of taxation. Ref. Oleomargarine case. If a valid tax existed on your earnings, the government could confiscate 100 percent of your earnings. Sections 7201-7215 are used in indictments to prosecute income tax cases. they are applied to ALL taxes the IRS prosecutes. They cannot identify the legal responsibility for an income tax. Ref. Sansone case. Indictments that do not allege violation of a “known legal duty” are a scam and a violation of Due Process.

  • Shen

    Work can be good for prisoners. When they get out, they can use the work experience on their resume. Perhaps they can get training on various equipment and at various tasks that will be beneficial to their future.

  • Claudia Kline

    OF COURCE YOU ARE KIDDING? Why should we cloth, feed, and take care of criminals! They should spend every waking hour paying back the society they have damaged! Why don’t you spend your time crying for the people in America who have always done right and paid their taxes only to find that in order to get any help at all, they must lose everything they have worked for!!! Wha Wha Wha poor poor criminals!!!!!!

    • But perhaps you are a criminal too. There are estimates that the number of “laws” on the books makes it almost impossible for anyone to go an entire day without breaking one of them.

  • Joelg -still disqus non grata

    Extending the minimum wage and guaranteed full 40-hour per week employment to prison inmates seems like a fair proposition, especially if Mr. Gastonne’s thesis is right and most prisoners are essentially kidnap victims who have been wrongly incarcerated and enslaved for victimless crimes. Of course, the government besides taxes from the wages would also be entitled to recoup room and board costs until such time as the prison slaves are emancipated. In those rare cases in which there is a victim, a portion of wages could go to repay the victims (not that they would bring back to life a murder victim). Then Whole Foods and customers of prison goods would be paying market price, and in paying higher prices the FED would get closer to its price inflation goals. The NSA and government regulatory agencies could monitor compliance, and thereby expand their range of high-paying jobs.

    This would be a good pathway towards an expanded prison system; which would employ more people; i.e. job creation. Debtors prisons could be brought back into being; but unlike the old English debtor prisons of Charles Dickens’ day, the new debtor prisons would pay higher than minimum wages. This would encourage people to voluntary turn themselves in to the prison system and work to compensate their victims (the creditors). Voluntary slavery would be a good alternative to the present prison system, and victim compensation would be an automatic part of the plan. This way, even in a jobless economy, people could pay off their student loans and credit card debts during their enslavement, which would be an acceptable slavery because of its voluntary nature. Throw in generous pension benefits, free health care, and paid college tuition like GIs get, and people would be on waiting lists begging to get into prison and pay off their victims (the creditors, in this case).

    • Diocletian

      LOL !

      Joelg, an enjoyable sarcastic “solution. Apparently, Claudia below was taken in and took you seriously

  • Gil G

    Or if you don’t like prison – reinstate corporal and capital punishment.

    • Joelg -still disqus non grata

      Not acceptable, Gil. Guy in White House orders enough capital punishments via drone every Tuesday afternoon. We don’t need government killing more people. Self-reliance is the way to go, without victimizing other people by making them accomplices to murder.

  • Keith Liberty

    For all these prognosticators yelling “Dollar Collapse” or “Economic disaster” headed our way, I say “LOL.”

    History shows that “central banks” or “economies” do not “collapse” or “reset” until there is a WORLD WAR. So quit scaring everyone…geez.

    Sure, we will have market corrections and INFLATION is eating away at our “standard of living” because of how the GOVT calculates inflation and makes COLA adjustments to retiring seniors (social security getting killed by inflation), but “collapse” won’t happen until TPTB create the conditions of the next WORLD WAR between RUSSIA/CHINA and the USA triggered by NORTH KOREA not IRAN.

    I’m amazed how quite TPTB are about NORTH KOREA who already has weapons versus IRAN who doesn’t….its obvious they are saving/staying quiet about NORTH KOREA for some odd reason while touting IRAN to forward Middle East economic agendas.