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Slavery Reinvented: For-Profit Companies’ Use of Black Prison Labor

“Just throw the whole thing away” is, a common phrase that African American’s say when something is not right. If the ice cream machine at McDonalds isn’t working (it usually never is), we would say “Just throw the whole McDonalds away”. Our prison system could be used as another example since the system does not posture itself as just, rehabilitative, or humane, especially when it comes to Black people. So, in a joking manner, we would say, “Just throw the whole prison system away.” Although joking, this is a sentiment that I feel is worth considering. Since we can’t throw away the whole prison system, then I think we can at least adjust it. I suggest the first reformative act that can take place is the elimination of the use of prison labor by for-profit companies.


The leasing of prison inmates to for-profit companies has a history dating back to the post-slavery era, Jim Crow, and Reconstruction. Newly freed slaves were experiencing freedom for the first time. White masters and plantations lost most of their workers and, of course, were not happy about this change. So, they created vagrancy laws which criminalized newly freed slaves for not holding jobs and being poor. This law led to the first wave of mass incarceration of Black people. They incarcerated newly freed slaves that were not employed and then leased them out to white plantation owners for labor. This is known as the convict-leasing system.

This system was built on the forced labor of the newly incarcerated. The way the prison industry operates today, reflects the remnants of the convict-leasing system.


Black men and women are disproportionately represented in prisons and jails than their white counterparts. “The Sentencing Project estimates 1 in 3 black men will spend time behind bars during their lifetime, compared with 1 in 6 Latino men and 1 in 17 white men.” It is safe to assume that because Black people are incarcerated at higher levels than other races, then they would, subsequently, make up most of the prison labor. Prisons outsource their inmates to perform labor for various companies and businesses to make goods and provide services. Inmates are electricians, carpenters, cooks, teachers, and so much more in the labor market. An example of prison labor that can be seen most often is the use of prison inmates as firefighters to fight off the forest fires in California. These jobs do provide inmates with adequate skills that they may not have had before they were incarcerated or the opportunity to learn them. They can take these skills with them if they are ever released from prison. However, that is only one pro in a sea full of cons regarding prison labor. Prison labor is still forced labor as inmates face punishments if they don’t work (Van Zyl Smit & Dünkel, 1999). If inmates refuse to work, then they are punished with solitary confinement and other carceral punishments.

Prison inmates are contracted out to companies and businesses to make goods, but do not get compensate​​d appropriately to fit the job. Inmates are used by for-profit companies to perform industrial-scale production, but get paid on average between .14 cents and $1.14. Private companies pay for prison labor at lower rates than other public companies and/or state businesses, “An even tinier portion of incarcerated workers are eligible for ‘“prevailing local wages’” working for private businesses that contract with states through the PIE program.”

Disenabling for-profit companies’ usage of prison labor will not stop prison labor altogether. State businesses and other public companies still use prison labor. However, Rome was not built in a day. Starting with cutting out for-profit companies is a huge up taking and will likely have a great impact on the future of prison labor. By outing these companies and removing them, hopefully reforms can take place that will encourage the just pay for prison labor.

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