Slavery Has Never Been Abolished in the United States. In Tennessee, It Could Be Soon.

Mar 03, 2021 at 11:00 am by Brendon Donoho

The following piece is a follow-up to my earlier column: Why it's time to fully abolish slavery in Tennessee. Now.

In a previous column in support of State Sen. Raumesh Akbari’s bill to abolish slavery in the state of Tennessee, I gave my best attempt at a description of America’s remaining and thriving slave labor industry. I’ve attempted to expand on this description here, but I still recommend that those who are seeking more information seek out the mountains of academic work on the topic, particularly that of BIPOC authors and researchers.

While an understanding of what Michelle Alexander dubbed “The New Jim Crow” in her brilliant book of the same name is more prevalent today, the mechanics of just how it works and to what scale are often still obscure to the average citizen.

The entire forced labor market, a multi-billion dollar a year industry which includes more than 4,000 national corporations and thousands of state and private prisons, is balanced precariously upon a single loophole within the 13th amendment of the United States Constitution. Though your high school civics teacher may have glossed over the 13th in its full wording, calling it “the one that banned slavery,” it’s actually the amendment which banned most of the common forms of slavery at the time and left one glaring opening, which quickly came to define private industry and public policy for years to come. See if you can spot it:

“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.”

So, you see, owning another human being and forcing them to work for little to no pay is wrong and evil, unless they’ve committed a crime. Then, as Theeda Murphy of Tennessee’s No Exceptions Prison Collective put it to me recently, “They become property of the state. They become legally slaves. They can force them to work and they do not have to pay them.”

This opening, having existed since the mid 19th century, has become an integral element to the modern penal system. Both state and private prisons are heavily staffed by their own inmates, with Tennessee inmates making between 17 and 59 cents per hour. Yes, you read that correctly.

While prisons themselves are the main users of this labor, many prisons also make large sums of money sending their inmates to work for private corporations who, in turn, can save on labor costs by paying cents per hour.

The obvious question must arise: why have prisons chosen to pay inmates at all? If they can be legally enslaved, why has the penal system chosen to give them any wages? Not all prison laborers are paid, but in general, the answer points to the remarkably insidious nature of the American penal system.

Since the 1980s, with the popularization of “tough on crime” language and policies like mandatory minimum sentencing and expanded police presence in lower-income neighborhoods, we have seen the number of incarcerated citizens grow exponentially. This leads to eye-popping costs for the American public, with American criminal justice costs rising more than 600 percent since 1980. Eventually, the public’s appetite for retributive justice was going to clash with their distaste for taxation or public debt. How was this crisis of values averted? By shifting the cost of this growing malignancy onto its victims, forcing incarcerated people to pay larger and larger portions of the cost of their own detention.

Today, many prisoners are asked to pay hundreds in probation fees, cover the cost of electronic monitoring, drug treatment, and other services, and even pay for their own public defender, a charge which is legal in 44 states. This is to say nothing of the costs of necessities like medical care and clothing. Many inmates are also charged rent for the time spent behind bars. Additionally, services which were once free, like phone calls to family and reading books from the library are now tied to constantly rising costs. Many prisoners finish their sentence with a mountain of debt and, thanks to being marked with a “criminal record,” little to no ability to gain employment which pays a decent wage.

And so, by placing this tremendous financial burden upon inmates, the U.S. penal system has achieved two key developments. First, they have shifted the financial burden of mass incarceration away from the general public, allowing them to continue lobbying for “tough on crime” legislation while hiding many of its consequences from the view of voters. Second, they have created sufficient demand for some form of income within the prison walls, making it possible to drive inmates to work for the only wages they’re able to achieve. The wages are set low enough, and the costs high enough, that inmates are rarely able to truly work their way out of from under this pressure.

The pressure is increasing as well, with costs of healthcare, rent, and contact with family rising at an alarming rate while studies show that prison wages are lower today than they were at the turn of the 21st century.

While larger reforms to and the possible abolition of our prison system in its current form may eventually be necessary, the abolition of slavery in each and every form must be an immediate moral imperative.

Beginning in Tennessee and hopefully expanding from there, it is time to end slavery once and for all.


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