U.S. Prison Labor and the Legacy of American Slavery

Fawn Bolak
Content Type
Working Paper
Center on Human Rights Education, University of Denver
Last September, thousands of incarcerated individuals in the United States launched an organized protest on the 45th anniversary of the Attica Prison Uprising, in an effort to protest racial discrimination, excessive force, and demand an end to the current state of legalized slavery within the U.S. prison system. Across the nation, prisoners in state and federal correctional facilities are exploited for their labor in industries related to agriculture, clothing production, machinery, and technology. While prison officials who strike up deals with large corporations like AT&T and Walmart share in the profits of cheap production, the incarcerated laborers themselves make mere cents per hour for full time work. Additionally, those locked up in federal institutions, who are physically capable of full time work, are mandated to do so as prescribed by Title 29 of the Crime Control Act of 1990. Over 2 million people are currently incarcerated in the United States, making the U.S. the #1 jailer in the world, surpassing Cuba, Russia, and China. Moreover, inmates in the U.S. are disproportionately people of color. According data from the Sentencing Project, black men are incarcerated at a rate 5.1 times the rate of white men, and in 12 states, predominately in the south and east coast, more than 50% of the total state prison population is black. There is a prevailing conservative narrative that asserts that the disproportionate incarceration of black individuals in our criminal justice system is a product of a “culture of violence” centered in “inner cities” and predominately black neighborhoods, rather than a product systemic institutional racism. However, a quick glance at U.S. history indicates that the mass incarceration of black men, current use of exploitative prison labor, and our past economic system built on slavery, is not a mere coincidence.
Human Rights, Race, Labor Issues, Prisons/Penal Systems, Slavery
Political Geography
United States, North America