Congress outlawed debt slavery in 1867, but corporations continue to successfully lobby for policies that profit off prison labor. The system is exceptionally powerful in southern states and county governments. The state of Georgia contains the largest prison industry in the U.S., Georgia Correctional Industries (GCI), where prisoners work 10 to 12 hour days without compensation. Exploited workers produce a range of services and products, including office furniture, candy, prescription glasses, road signs, and other products. Other incarcerated people work in the fields of firefighting, highway maintenance, construction, custodial services, and as teacher aids, among other things. Federal prisons produce all military helmets and war supplies and supply equipment assembly services ranging from paints to appliances.
More than 4,100 corporations profit from incarceration in the U.S. Private prisons hold valuable government contracts with minimum bed guarantees, and private companies stock overpriced commissaries and telephone services. Other private companies reap windfalls using prison labor in their supply chains.
Cheap prison labor is a powerful incentive against criminal justice reform, and states feel the push to invest heavily in imprisonment. In 2022, Gov. Brian Kemp—whose ancestors fought to preserve slavery—allocated $1.27 billion dollars to the Georgia Department of Corrections in fiscal year 2023. That’s $59.3 million more than in 2020.
Incarceration rates, consequently, remain high. Georgia’s rate of 968 per 100,000 people is one of the highest in the nation. More than 47,232 people were serving time in Georgia state prisons as of February 10, 2023. However, just $6.7 million of Kemp’s $1.27 billion allocation, or $126.95 per person per year, goes to health, safety, and security for those incarcerated. Nothing goes to wages for those who have done the work.
This allegedly “illegal” peonage system persists under the 13th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which abolished slavery and involuntary servitude, because the amendment makes an exception for work imposed as "punishment for crime.” The former slave state of Georgia was happy to exploit the loophole and imposed a convict leasing system immediately after the Civil War and pushed the chain gang system in the 1890s.
Critics say the state's prison system still compels labor compliance through retaliatory treatment, including devastating solitary confinement, loss of privileges, and loss of "PIC points," which enable early release.
Emily Shelton, co-founder and the executive director of prison reform group Ignite Justice, says forced carceral labor perpetuates the South's legacy of Black slavery and servitude.
"In a fashion, slavery still exists to this day as prisons use our loved ones for free labor saving them thousands of dollars a year from hiring outside contractors," argues Shelton. "If they refuse to work for free, our loved one’s face retaliation by staff. Loss of privileges, getting sent to solitary confinement or being denied parole are just a few ways they are punished. It also leads to correction officers’ abuse of inmates."
Then and now, the Georgia system disproportionately targets Black and brown men and women for minor crimes and trumped-up charges. At the onset of the program, victims worked for local employers who paid their fines and court fees, and states leased felony convicts en masse to local industrialists. The chain gang was abolished in 1943, but prisoners still worked on farms, roads, and construction projects. Seventy-nine public works camps operated across Georgia in 1961, including the infamous Buford Prison Rock Quarry, where prisoners severed their heel tendons to protest labor conditions in 1951. An additional 30 incarcerated persons would break their own legs with sledgehammers to protest dangerous work conditions. Unsurprisingly, prison labor helped build Stone Mountain Memorial Park, Georgia’s infamous monument to slavery. Today Black Georgians make up 60% of the incarcerated population despite only representing 31% of the population, and the state's probation rate—the highest in the nation—continues to hurt those who cannot afford to pay court debts, creating debt traps.
Black exploitation is still a massive moneymaker. An American Civil Liberties Union report reveals approximately 800,000 people, out of 1.2 million incarcerated people in state and federal prisons, are forced to work, generating up to $11 billion annually in goods and services, at wages between 13 cents to 52 cents per hour. They work for free in the states of Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Mississippi, and Texas, and violate fundamental human rights to life and dignity. Georgia's reliance on this largely uncompensated labor contributes billions of dollars in sales tax revenue to its economy through private contract work and supply chain support.
Fair Pricing laws aggravate the situation by mandating prison industries not sell its products below market value. This ensures that GCI takes every advantage to deny fair wages, healthcare, paid vacations, sick leave, retirement, and other benefits. It is not uncommon for those released on parole to leave the system owing more upon release despite hours of labor. Georgia Correctional Industries (GCI) was established by the Georgia General Assembly as a public corporation owned by the State of Georgia in 1960. By statute it retains 25% of its profit for employee bonuses and self-investment and puts the rest into the State's General Fund. The system is so exploitive that it effectively competes with offshore slave wages. The prison system’s textile production sector is one of the few textile industries that has not been outsourced to cheap overseas labor.
Shelton says the program fails to help prisoners reintegrate into society, and that program jobs are generally low-skill, manual labor that provides no meaningful training.
"Furthermore, the work environment in prisons is often highly controlled and restrictive, with limited opportunities for prisoners to develop the interpersonal and problem-solving skills they need to succeed in the outside world," Shelton says.