In her 1996 book, “It Takes a Village,” Hillary Clinton writes about what she called “an unusual aspect” of being the First Lady of Arkansas. Living in the governor’s mansion, Clinton and her husband were served by unpaid prisoners. “When we moved in, I was told that using prison labor at the governor’s mansion was a longstanding tradition, which kept down costs,” she wrote, adding that the prisoners were Black men in their 30s serving long sentences.
What was unusual to Clinton, however, was not the fact that she was being served by unpaid Black men who had no freedom; it was that having prisoners in her home made her uncomfortable — at least initially. “I had defended several clients in criminal cases, but visiting them in jail or sitting next to them in court was not the same as encountering a convicted murderer in the kitchen every morning,” she wrote. “I was apprehensive.”
Clinton’s nonchalant recounting of the unpaid labor in the governor’s mansion — with no apparent concern over what is part of America’s legacy of slavery — is reflective of just how much slavery, and unpaid Black labor in particular, has shaped American culture. And that’s not only because the United States was built on slavery, but also because slavery was actually never fully abolished. Though the 13th Amendment, which outlawed the widespread practice of slavery, passed over 150 years ago, the US Constitution, to this very day, allows for certain American citizens to be subject to involuntary servitude.
“The normalization of seeing Black people in nonpaid labor, in servitude — as needing to be punished, as being suspicious of having done something — is part of a legacy that dates back to the 17th century in our country,” Michele Goodwin, a law professor at the University of California, Irvine, said in an interview. “These are the messages that Americans had to tell themselves to justify a child being sold at a corner block.”
The constitutionality of modern day slavery lies in an exception in the 13th Amendment, which reads, “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.” That means that while Americans have a constitutional right to not be enslaved, that right is unequivocally stripped away from them if they are ever imprisoned.
After the 13th Amendment was passed, “Southern lawmakers went back and created laws that would be targeted at Black people,” Goodwin said. These were part of the Black Codes, a series of laws that criminalized behaviors that white lawmakers associated with Black people, who were subsequently arrested for things as simple as loitering. The result was the continued enslavement of Black Americans at the hands of the state.
That practice continues in some forms today. Prisoners, who are disproportionately Black and brown, work at government facilities, like state houses or governor’s mansions, for little to no pay, despite this kind of work not being a part of their sentences. “The reason it’s been so normalized is because of the Black and brown faces associated with it,” Goodwin said. While at least four states allow for unpaid labor, other states pay prisoners wages as low as a dime an hour. California, for example, employs prisoners for janitorial work or to make things like license plates for anywhere between 8 and 95 cents an hour, and pays firefighting prisoners a measly dollar per hour. Massachusetts pays its prisoners as little as 14 cents an hour, and withholds half of their paychecks until after they are released.
Some argue that prison labor allows incarcerated people to gain valuable skills and job training while serving their sentences. But the reality is that getting a job out of prison is still incredibly difficult. Even up until a new bill passed just last year, prisoners who worked as firefighters in California, for example, were seldom employed by the state after finishing their sentence (not to mention the fact that work without pay should be inexcusable, whatever the circumstance).
That the United States has the world’s largest incarcerated population and allows for underpaid, unpaid, and involuntary prison labor should be a major concern for lawmakers. As it stands, prison labor, a multibillion-dollar industry that gives corporations and state governments access to cheap labor, only serves as an incentive to fuel mass incarceration.
Senator Jeff Merkley of Oregon and Representative Nikema Williams of Georgia have introduced an “abolition amendment,” which would finally scrap the exception clause in the 13th Amendment. It should go without saying that Congress should pass this bill, but it’s easy to see conservative lawmakers standing in its way. That said, Republicans often point to the first Republican president, Abraham Lincoln, as an example of how it was their party that led America away from slavery. If they actually believe they are still the party of Lincoln, then they should join Democrats and finally abolish all forms of slavery in the United States. That is, of course, unless their obsession with Confederate flags and monuments is about more than “Southern heritage and pride.”