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What We Talk About When We Talk About Penal Labor

source: wikimedia commons

source: wikimedia commons

Minimum wage has been a popular topic this election season. Some candidates are promising to raise the federal minimum wage to as high $15 an hour-- a living wage. This might be a great step towards closing the increasingly large wealth gap in the United States, but what many forget is that many US citizens don’t even get minimum wage in the first place. We’re talking about prisoners, who make an average of $0.92 an hour, and don’t have the right to unionize.

The United States has a history of convict leasing which dates back to the Civil War. The Thirteenth Amendment, which abolished “slavery and involuntary servitude except as a punishment for crime”, explicitly allows for penal labor. After the Civil War, many Southern landowners would lease plots of land and tools to newly freed slaves at exorbitant prices. This was called sharecropping, and it usually led to African Americans falling into debt and essentially continued the cycle of slavery in the US. With the Southern economy in shambles after the war, industries needed a cheap source of labor, and so, governments created convict leasing. As African Americans were imprisoned for not being able to payback landowners, private industries would rent them as laborers at low prices. The loophole in the Thirteenth Amendment, which allows for penal labor, essentially afforded people the opportunity to, in many ways, re-enslave African Americans. Share cropping combined with Black Codes and Jim Crow Laws led to the beginning of the mass incarceration of African Americans in the United States. White supremacists designed these laws to enforce social and economic norms, which prevented newly free slaves from rising up in society, and together Black Codes and Jim Crow Laws created a racial caste system during the Reconstruction era, which we still see in our prison structures today. Although we’d like to think that Jim Crow Laws are just an embarrassing stumble in America’s great history, we have to face the reality that these laws still shape our society. California just desegregated its prisons in 2014. Just to put this in perspective, the Brown v. Board of Education ruling that abolished segregation with “separate but equal is inherently unequal” happened in 1954.

When we talk about penal labor, we are talking about the legacy of slavery. Today, US prisons are overwhelming populated by African Americans, who are forced to labor in horrible conditions for abysmal pay. Some might argue that prisoners should not be paid and that labor is part of the punishment; however, prisoners are not the only victims. The real victims of low prison wages are minority communities.

Refusing to pay prisoners re-enforces the poverty in minority communities, starting with children. Not only do most inmates have a child, but about half of parents in state prison provide the primary financial support for their minor children. Poor wages directly affect inmates’ families and continue the cycle of poverty. On a larger scale, this causes stagnation in the economy as poor communities don’t have the means to buy goods and stimulate market growth. It might save taxpayer dollars in the short run, but it is not a sustainable solution in the long run.

So when we talk about penal labor, what we really need to talk about is institutionalized racism.

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