During our time in Colorado a few weeks back we learned about a statewide vote coming up tomorrow to abolish slavery.
Yes. You read that right. The state of Colorado is voting tomorrow to abolish slavery.
And so, the obvious question would be, if Colorado is voting to abolish slavery, what exactly did the 13th Amendment to the Constitution do?
If your answer is to abolish slavery, you would be wrong. There is no grey area in the word abolish. Something is either abolished, or it isn’t.
Let’s review the text of the amendment:
“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.”
— The 13th Amendment to the United States Constitution
That phrase beginning with “except” is the part which actually constitutionally protected slavery in America for the first time. So, the 13th ended slavery in most situations, but that word “except” protected it to continue in a different form.
We watched a great documentary on PBS recently called “Slavery by Another Name,” based on the Pulitzer Prize winning book of the same name by Douglas Blackmon. It basically blew up my assumption that slavery ended after the Civil War. I recommend reading the book or watching the documentary on PBS.
So if slavery didn’t end after the Civil War, did it ever end? I think that folks in Colorado believe it never did. So, the big question for me is how does slavery continue today?
We watched another documentary on Netflix called “13TH” which helped us understand some of how things look today. I learned about the phrases like “mass incarceration” and “prison industrial complex.”
I learned about some of the impacts of the privatization of our prison system. Governments have turned the building and managing of their prisons over to corporations. And this industry is making big money. That’s right, there are people and corporations that profit from incarceration. More incarceration means more profits. So, companies do what companies are supposed to do; they work to generate returns for their owners and shareholders.
How does a company increase profit? Most simply, by increasing revenue, and decreasing expenses.
There are something like 2 million people imprisoned in America today, more than any country in the world. We aren’t nearly the most populated country, but we imprison our people at a much higher rate. Our incarceration rate per 100,000 people is actually the highest in the entire world!
Wow! These were some startling statistics for me. So, this is one way to increase revenues. How does this connect to the slavery and involuntary servitude debate in Colorado?
Inmates in Colorado work various jobs for wages so low, their labor can easily be compared to slave labor. Prisoners work in food services, do laundry, perform maintenance in the prisons themselves for as little as $.60 per day, or $.07 per hour! Paying your “employees” seven cents per hour is a great way to have a more profitable business. The prisons cannot operate without this nearly free form of labor, which looks a great deal like involuntary servitude to me.
A cheap labor force is an easily incentive to incarcerate masses.
In addition, products are produced by this labor force for consumers in America and across the world through these “factories with fences.” Here are some of the products produced by prison labor: military and law enforcement uniforms and equipment, furniture, car parts, lingerie, clothes, processed meat, just to name a few.
Why pay market prices, unemployment insurance, social security benefits, and 401(k) benefits when you can get the same thing for pennies per hour?!
I’m not at all an expert on these issues, so feel free to correct me where I’m wrong. If half of this is true, it doesn’t traitor an advanced degree to recognize that this practice is a perpetuated form of slavery in America. People who are incarcerated are still humans deserving of dignity and respect. I believe that inmates bear the image of the God that I love and deserve the dignity that I receive whether they are guilty of a crime or not.
I agree that there must be consequences for crimes committed, but the greater goal must be rehabilitation back into society rather than abusing these individuals and forcing them to work jobs without pay as a form of punishment.
I’m eager to see how this vote goes for Colorado tomorrow, and the conversation it could open up on the national stage about our continued practice of slavery through our prison systems in America.
Photo credit: Abolish Slavery Colorado