Tuesday, September 04, 2018

Prison Strike 2018 -- Stop slave wages and amend the 13th Amendment

The Intercept reported on the summer 2018 prison strike. It will be very interesting to see what attention it generates and what the outcomes will be. Among the shocking features of our incarceration policies are the very low wages paid to inmates for their labor. A year and half ago, Prison Policy compiled prison wages, state by state.

For prisoners, having the opportunity work is a good idea, but it must be compensated at the prevailing scale to be fair and meaningful.  There are many problems with the U.S. Constitution -- the electoral college system and the equal representation of each state in the U.S. Senate are two that come quickly to mind -- but one of the worst is the continued authorization of slavery as punishment for the conviction of a crime in the 13th Amendment as slavery is being outlawed in general.

"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." (Ratified Dec. 18, 1865 by 27 states)

This provision of the Constitution sanctifies slavery as a status for being convicted of a crime

This provision of the Constitution authorizes "slave wages" for inmates working in the nation's correctional system. This is a provision that should be amended by Congress and the States.

The continuation of the Constitutional protection of slavery has terrible consequences. As provided by the Constitution, this status of protected slavery is not limited only to the serving of a sentence, but can be understood a lifetime second-class status that helps undermine the rehabilitation of the formerly incarcerated. It helps to maintain the reluctance to fully reintegrate those who have offended back into the economy and the community.

Today, prisoners are paid a few cents per hour for their labor, justified by this provision of the Constitution.  Work is a valued distraction from the boredom of imprisonment. Prisoners want to work. Meaningful work in prison is a valuable experience for transitioning to employment at the end of a sentence. Work in prison should be encouraged! But as long as prison labor can be equated as slavery and involuntary servitude it is tainted. Prison work, often hazardous -- working on farms, working with power tools and machinery, working in risky environments -- should be subject to OSHA. And prison employees should be subject to workplace protections against injury (worker's compensation, protection against hazardous materials, and from harassment and discrimination, etc.)

But as a matter of policy,  slave labor wages, due to the 13th Amendment, pervert the valuable experience of work for prisoners.
By failing to adequately compensate prison labor:
     * work becomes associated with exploitation and fosters resentment against employers and increases alienation about our economic system;
     * the labor undercuts wages paid to people employed in the regular labor market whose products and services compete with those of the prison employer;
     * prisoners cannot send meaningful funds home to families, helping to support children, which provides a stronger basis for family re-integration at the conclusion of a sentence (a strong family connection being an important factor in reducing the risk of recidivism);
     * prisoners cannot purchase telephone time to stay in communication with family;
     * families of prisoners have to subsidize their loved ones in prison, creating additional stresses on families that have lost a bread winner;
     * prisoners cannot save money to serve as a first and lost month rent for housing when they are released from incarceration increasing the likelihood that they will immediately become homeless and at high risk to use illegal drugs and return to criminal conduct.

Is Congress working to eliminate the protection of slavery in the 13th Amendment which begins, "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..."


In the current 115th Congress, two Republicans in the House, Rep. Randy Weber (R-TX) and Rep. David Young (R-IA) have introduced H. Res. 936 to recognize June   19, as "Junteenth Independence Day," that notes that the 13th Amendment was adopted.

On January 29, 2018, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) introduced S. 385, "National Trafficking and Modern Slavery Prevention Month" in January 2018, noting that the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000 was enacted "under the authority of Congress to enforce the 13th Amendment" and "updated the post-Civil War involuntary servitude and slavery statutes." It was approved by the Senate very quickly, but on February 7, a week after the month ended. 

But there is an opportunity for Congress to help prisoners but abolishing slavery in the U.S., period, but amending the 13th Amendment.

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