Most people don’t realise that when Abraham Lincoln pushed through the Thirteenth Amendment to the US Constitution, passed in 1865, there was one crucial exception to the end of slavery. There are still slaves in the United States of America and there will be slaves for a very long time.
The Thirteenth Amendment states that “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude… shall exist within the United States.” But adds the exception that slavery remains legal “as a punishment for a crime.”
Even fewer people realise that September 9th was the forty-fifth anniversary of the infamous riots in Attica Prison where inmates called for the end to this slavery, for freedom of political expression and better living conditions. Those initial riots in 1971 at Attica Prison cost the lives of 29 prisoners and 10 hostages.
Yet, nearly half a century later, there are still modern slaves in the United States of America. And most Americans don’t see a problem with it.
In Australia we have the same situation (albeit without directly referring to slavery). But there is no other way to view the exploitation of human beings for profit. Whether the punishment is designed to incorporate slavery; whether it’s what we’re used to throughout our lives in this country; or, whether as long as the sun rises and the sun sets there is no sympathy and can be no sympathy for the plight of a criminal. Our society has long incorporated slavery in the penal system.
Which is really interesting because slavery is one of those things that has always been unethical. There’s no ethical way to exploit human labour at the point of a gun. Whether it’s using a prisoner, or a migrant worker. And, like all slavery, the pathway to prison is predominantly that of the poor.
Don’t get me wrong, work is fine inside prisons, but it shouldn’t be exploitative. Rehabilitation is not found in forced labour that turns a profit for either our government or private corporations. We need to start looking at why 19th Century prison paradigms aren’t working.
A big part of this problem is also that we’re very comfortable with slaves in our product supply chains. Slavery in our food and clothes and right down to the components in our technology like Congolese coltan to make cheap tantulum capacitors. Slavery, however unethical, is fine by most people as long as it’s somebody else being enslaved for profit out of plain sight.
Next September 9th there will be further protests in American prisons aimed at bringing an end to the slavery enabled within the 13th Amendment of the US Constitution. This year six other countries had prison protests in line with this international norm. Hopefully the number will increase.
We need to question ourselves about what we believe the role of incarceration should be in the greater societal interest. That includes the systemic use of slavery, human abuses like solitary confinement, the ultimate socio-economic cost of prison expansion and the greater value of rehabilitation over a pre-programmed response like societal revenge.
Yes, you may be comfortable with slavery in the prison system. You may believe that a prisoner doesn’t deserve a working minimum wage in reward for an honest day’s work inside prison. But I’d point back to that part of history where wider usage of slavery was argued to be the natural order of things, as well. No matter what your argument, we can’t be ethical human beings if we are slavers. There is no ethically acceptable use of slavery, end of argument.
Just be aware that slavery stops when we are no longer willing to pay for it. And, just like sugar slavery, it can be gone and forgotten like an old habit we’re ashamed to have fostered. All we need is a common will to stop paying the price.