Prison reformer Johnny Perez sewed bedding, underwear, and pillowcases while incarcerated. The company he worked for, Corcraft, manufactures products for state and local agencies using prison labour. The pay he received was between 17 cents and 36 cents per hour.
Perez said that the current system forces people to work, and not only that, but it does not give them an adequate living wage. Slavery, no matter what its name is, is wrong. Slavery in all its forms is wrong, he further added.
Perez is now a part of a national movement to reform what has been called the “slavery loophole”, which allows incarcerated people to earn small wages for jobs that can have dire consequences if they refuse to perform them.
What is the Slavery Loophole?
The Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, passed in 1865, abolished slavery and involuntary servitude. There was, however, an exception for “a punishment for a duly convicted crime.” It has been argued by scholars, activists, and prisoners that this exception clause explains the rise of jail systems that incarcerate Black people at as much as five times the rate of whites and profit off their unpaid or underpaid labour. These understandings led to Black people being criminalized, imprisoned, and enslaved again during Reconstruction.
Almost 150 years later, incarcerated and detained individuals continue to be disproportionately Black and brown, and they are forced to work for little to no pay under the threat of additional punishment, such as solitary confinement and loss of family visits.
Prisoners have been exploited as workers in the U.S. under this exception clause, earning nothing to a few dollars per day to perform jobs ranging from prison work to manufacturing or working for private employers, where the jurisdictions that imprison them deduct a large portion of their pay for room and board and other expenses.
Approximately 800,000 prisoners in state and federal prisons are forced to work, according to a report published by the American Civil Liberties Union in June 2022. They earn an estimated $11 billion in goods and services annually at an average hourly wage of 13 to 52 cents. There are five states in which prisoners are forced to work without compensation – Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Mississippi, and Texas. According to the report, U.S. prisoners’ working conditions violated human rights to life and dignity.
The National Movement
Nikema Williams, the representative for Georgia’s 5th congressional district, called for the Abolition Amendment’s immediate passage ahead of Constitution Day earlier this month. The Abolition Amendment is co-sponsored by 172 House members from both parties. A constitutional convention in which two-thirds of state legislatures vote to support the measure can alter the document only after a two-thirds majority of the House and Senate approve a resolution. There has been no constitutional convention for amending the Constitution to date.
Rep. Nikema Williams and Sen. Jeff Merkley are promoting an amendment to the Constitution to end the exception to the 13th amendment. The bill has 14 co-sponsors in the U.S. Senate, while in the House, it has 175 co-sponsors, including 170 Democrats and 5 Republicans.
Until the abolition amendment is passed at the federal level and through ballot initiatives at the state level, the #EndTheException coalition is coordinating efforts involving more than 80 national organizations, including civil rights, criminal justice reform, and labour groups.
Several states will vote in November 2022 on removing exception clauses from their constitutions. California’s assembly passed an abolition amendment, but the Senate didn’t vote on it this year so the amendment couldn’t appear on the ballot this November.
Johnny Perez believes that a change is needed. According to him, prison provides insufficient necessities like food, toiletries, clothing, and office supplies, with meagre wages not covering these costs.
According to Perez, rejecting work assignments can have adverse consequences, including being placed in solitary confinement or having any work issues placed on the prisoner’s record. Issues on the work record affect parole and privileges within a prison. It is common for prison workers to be forced to work even when sick unless an infirmary confirms that they cannot do so. They do not get paid time off.
With the launch of the Except For Me campaign, the #EndTheException coalition raised awareness of the issues, culminating in a petition delivered to Congress to support the abolition amendment. A Burger King franchise employee in Alabama at the time of her community status until 2014 is among those featured in the campaign; the state took around 60% of her earnings for fees, room and board, and restitution.