For women, ending slavery and involuntary servitude would be a benefit. A greater benefit would be ending prison.

On January 31, 1865, the U.S Congress passed the 13th Amendment to the United States Constitution, which reads in its entirety: “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. Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.” The Amendment was ratified on December 6, 1865. According to the National Archives, “With the adoption of the 13th Amendment, the United States found a final constitutional solution to the issue of slavery.” Not altogether. There’s the matter of the exception clause, “except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted,” which makes it perfectly legal, even Constitutional, to force incarcerated people to work for little or no pay. Yesterday, January 31, 2024, 159 years later, advocacy group Worth Rises released a study, “A Cost-Benefit Analysis: The Impact of Ending Slavery and Involuntary Servitude as Criminal Punishment and Paying Incarcerated Workers Fair Wages”. Where are the women in this study and in the current world(s) constructed and codified by the 13th Amendment’s exception? Where are the women, and where should they be?

According to the study, “This study projects that while society overall will benefit from abolishing slavery and involuntary servitude in prison, and from paying fair wages for prison labor, those gains will fall disproportionately to groups and communities that have been most impacted by mass incarceration, specifically Black and Brown people, low-income people, and women …. Roughly 47% of incarcerated men and 58% of incarcerated women are the parents of minor children …. 58% of women in state or federal prisons have minor children,103 and most of them are single mothers, thus bearing sole responsibility for their young children …. Women — and Black and Hispanic women in particular — shoulder most of the financial costs of incarceration burdening families and loved ones. A recent study, for instance, showed that family members paid for court-related costs in 63% of criminal cases, and that 83% of these family members were women. The same study also found that 87% of the costs of staying connected through calls and visits similarly fell on women. Based on these data, this study projects that women will indirectly receive much of the economic benefit from fair wage payments to incarcerated workers.” Where are the women? Everywhere all at once and under attack.

While ending slavery and involuntary servitude are worthwhile, laudable and practical goals, is it enough? Consider the news just from the past week.

On Wednesday, the same day the study was issued, The Seattle Times reported, “Washington state has paid $9.9 million to settle a lawsuit by a woman whose cervical cancer grew terminal while she was incarcerated after prison doctors failed to adequately diagnose and treat the disease. In the latest of a series of deadly and expensive health care failures in state prisons, Paula Gardner, who was serving time for drug and burglary convictions, didn’t receive appropriate medical care for more than two years despite tests showing signs of possible cancer — and eventually a scan revealing a growth inside her uterus …. The settlement money will benefit Gardner for what remains of her life, as well as her two sons, who were also plaintiffs in the lawsuit.”

On Monday, The Argus Leader reported, “The state [South Dakota] is facing a record average daily population of more than 600 women in the state’s two women prisons. That’s nearly double the prisons’ daily capacity.” Department of Corrections Secretary Kellie Wasko commented, “I do worry a little bit about the female institution if we don’t do something.”

Do something. More often than not, the response to overcrowding is to build more prisons, this even though Secretary Wasko made it clear that sentencing guidelines and, secondarily, substance abuse account for the fact that people were incarcerated in the first place. Building more prisons won’t address the injustice of the sentencing system nor will it address substance abuse.

Do something. Two weeks ago, in England, a court of appeals did something: “The court of appeal has quashed the prison sentence of a heavily pregnant woman so that she can give birth safely, in a case hailed as a landmark by campaigners.” Instead of the sentence she had received from a criminal court, five years for possession of a firearm and ammunition and serving two and a half years in prison, the judges gave the woman a two-year suspended sentence with a rehabilitation requirement.

The case occurred at all because the pregnant woman’s mother feared for her daughter’s life and contacted Level Up, “a feminist community campaigning for gender justice in the UK”. Level Up campaigns to keep pregnant women out of prison. Level Up gave the pregnant woman support and assistance. After the judges’ decision was rendered, Janey Starling, Level Up co-director, said: “This landmark judgment marks a sea change in sentencing practices. Several other countries do not imprison pregnant women or new mothers and England’s courts are beginning to catch up. Prison will never be a safe place to be pregnant. The prison ombudsman, Ministry of Justice and NHS have declared all pregnancies in prison as high risk. This means that when a judge sentences a pregnant woman to prison, they are sentencing her to a high-risk pregnancy. That is unconscionable.”

Slavery is unconscionable. Involuntary servitude is unconscionable. Refusing care is unconscionable. Toxic, life endangering overcrowding is unconscionable. Sentencing someone to high-risk pregnancy is unconscionable. Do something about it. Close the prisons and create the scales of justice anew. 159 years is too long.

(By Dan Moshenberg)

(Image credit: 2nd Life Media Alamogordo Town News) (Photo Credit: Level Up / Elizabeth Dalziel)

French prison workers win the right to labor protection!

Until now in France, being employed while incarcerated was not placed under labor protection of the civil society. Instead, it was regulated by the prison system. There was no work contract and wages were as much as three times less than minimum wage. On Friday, a court decision changed all that, placing prison workers’ protection under the regime of regular labor laws.

While in jail as a remand prisoner, Marilyn Moureau worked for a phone company. She was laid off for having placed personal phone calls during her work time. In the language of prison management, she was “déclassé” (displaced), a term designed to mark the difference between prison labor and `real’ work. She took her former employer to the Labor Relations Board (prud’homme) and charged them for not respecting proper employment procedures. She won and got everything that is guaranteed by law for workers, including damages and compensation.

This is an important decision because it asserts that work is work whether workers are incarcerated or not. Labor rights should apply to every worker, including prisoners. It also states that people must keep their civil visibility while in jail or prison.

Moreau’s lawyer declared, “It is a great day for all the prisoners of France … an historical decision!”  Let’s hope it inspires the struggle fight to induce changes in worker protection around the world.

(Photo Credit: Nouvel Obs / Thierry Creux / MaxPPP)

Prison labor haunts `history’

Elaine Brown

When is slavery not slavery? When the slaves are called prisoners, their condition is not slavery. It’s … history. The Thirteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution says so, and so do the United Kingdom Border Authority, UKBA, and the private prison corporation, Serco.

Last month, on December 9, 2010, prisoners in several prisons across Georgia went on strike.  According to Elaine Brown, one of the prisoners’ spokespersons, the strike involved “Augusta, Baldwin, Calhoun, Hancock, Hays, Macon, Rogers, Smith, Telfair, Valdosta and Ware state prisons.” Others claim seven prisons were involved. The strike concerned prisoners’ working and living conditions across the state. The conditions of prisoners in Georgia are famously bad. Prisoners in Georgia receive no pay for the work they perform. The possibility of going to jail in Georgia, especially for people of color, is infamously high. Georgia has the highest rate of prison `involvement’ in United States: “In Georgia, 1 in 13 adults is either in prison, in jail, on probation, or on parole.” The national average is 1 in 31.

The strike was non violent, peaceful even. The media focused on the capacity of prisoners to organize a structured, non spontaneous, non violent work stoppage across the state. This was facilitated by the use of contraband cell phones, bought largely from guards.

The strike was called `historic’, in two senses. On one hand, it was massive. Again according to Elaine Brown, the strike was “historic in scope and in the unity of thousands of black, brown, white, Muslim, Christian and Rastafarian prisoners.” Others claimed it was one of the largest prison strikes and the biggest prisoner strike in U.S. history. In terms of scale, of numbers of prisoners involved, of numbers of kinds of prisoners involved, the action was historic.

On the other hand, the strike was historic in that it protested the history of prison labor. Prison labor has historically been part of a racially, ethnically segregated labor market, “an emblem of racial subjugation.” Prison labor, especially in the United States, has its roots in slavery. Read the Constitution of the United States.

According to the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution: “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.” For prisoners, slavery and involuntary servitude are constitutionally just fine. Where do slavery and justice sleep comfortably together? In prison.

And not only in the United States.

At Yarl’s Wood, in the United Kingdom, women refugees and asylum seekers are held in detention … for the crime of applying for asylum. This week, current and former prisoners, all women, revealed their working conditions and described them as modern day slavery.

Asylum seekers are not allowed to work while their application is in process. But not at Yarl’s Wood. There they work, for next to nothing. Gloria Sestus, a 32-year-old Nigerian, says she is paid £1 to clean the dining room twice a day. The job takes more than an hour each time. As former prisoner Nordia Hylton, 34-year-old Jamaican asylum seeker, noted, “People who work without papers to try and feed their families are arrested for illegally working and detained. But once they get to Yarl’s Wood they can work for next to nothing. The UKBA and Serco are hypocrites. They are taking advantage of people’s situation.”

Gloria Sestus sees it as more than hypocrisy, “It is like slavery in a modernised form.”

It is like slavery in a modernized form. African women, Afro Caribbean women, women of the African diaspora know a thing or two about the history of slavery. The prison strike across Georgia was historic. The prisoners’ testimonies and protests concerning Yarl’s Wood are historic as well. Both call on us to speak and address the historic name of prison labor: slavery.


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