Prison Business

There's no 'Prison Break' as long as America needs free labour force

Who is a minority? In 1984, American sociologist and social theorist Joe Feagin wrote that a minority can be recognized through five characteristics. First, they experience discrimination and subordination. Second, they are distinguished based on their culture and/or physical traits. Third, members of a minority group share a sense of identity, suffering or displacement. Fourth, the social status of members of such a group depends on rules set by the dominant group that specify who belongs and who does not belong. Fifth, regardless of their numerical majority, they are ruled by the dominant group [1].
Human zoo in Belgium, 1958.

​Based on this widely used definition, we are about to identify and study the minorities in the United States and how they are treated by the country. According to the 2010 US Census, around 36.3 percent of country’s population belongs to a racial or ethnic minority group: American Indian or Alaskan Native, Asian American, Black or African American, Hispanic or Latino, and Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander [2]. Adding to this official census, we must also include the 60,000 guest workers who come to the United States to find jobs under the H-2B visa program. In this article we will examine the issue of modern slavery against these minorities.

The United States of America has a long history of a slaveholding culture, which persists to this day. In the past, Slave Codes were a set of rules that kept the institution of slavery in place. After the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution was passed, laws of almost the same nature were put in place under a different name ‘Black Codes’.

Sifting through this history reveals the fact that slavery did not end at the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment [3], as this amendment recognized slavery as a legal method of punishment taking action against prisoners. To put it another way, under the Constitution of the United States, it is completely legal to enslave someone as part of a punishment for a crime. As a result, under the Thirteenth Amendment, which was meant to put an end to slavery, almost all slaves continued to work as slaves under the name of "prisoners". Or they were regulated under the Black Codes, a continuation of the slavery codes through which the freedoms of African-Americans were greatly reduced. They were forced to live on very low wages or into work to pay off debts due to government fines, something that still persists nowadays. Among such measure that kept slavery in place, albeit under a different name, there were insidious laws such as those making it a crime for a black man to change employers without permission [4]. The same concept of chattel slavery continued intact, but with a different name [5].

The structure created by the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment is the reason why prisons which were previously administered by the State have become a multi-billion dollar private industry in the US, in particular, and in the West in general. Currently, there are almost 2.3 million prisoners in American for-profit prisons [6] which mostly incarcerate Blacks and Hispanics [7]. An additional 5 million adults are on probation or parole [8] and should also be added to the above figure. Social activists have long sought to expose the all-too-often involvement that police have in this situation by being complicit in the system. Through targeting minorities and underserved groups, charging poor people exorbitant fees for minor infractions or arrests for non-violent crimes [9] police help to maintain full prison facilities. There are also numerous reports on how companies are currently working with and financing these prisons, on US soil or outside of it, in return for cheap labor they receive help to produce their products [10]. Federal Prison Industries, a government owned corporation that employs inmates for just 23 cents an hour [11], is an example of how slavery is still rampant in the United States. Prison labor is also reported to be used by many companies, such as an American-based manufacturer of solar panels [12]. If you wonder how this is being done legally in the US, read the Thirteenth Amendment that permits such a practice:

Section 1. 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.

Section 2. Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.

Journalist Caroline Winter writes a list of prison labor and workloads offered for cheap wages in the United States. She enumerates the following workload in the food industry being done by prisoners:

“Each month, California inmates process more than 680,000 pounds of beef, 400,000 pounds of chicken products, 450,000 gallons of milk, 280,000 loaves of bread, and 2.9 million eggs (from 160,000 inmate-raised hens). Starbucks subcontractor Signature Packaging Solutions has hired Washington prisoners to package holiday coffees (as well as Nintendo Game Boys). Confronted by a reporter in 2001, a Starbucks rep called the setup "entirely consistent with our mission statement.”[13]

Modern slavery is not limited to for-profit prisons; even small and medium businesses exploit foreign workers and use them as slaves. Generally people come from poor countries to seek jobs in the US to better support their families in their homelands. In order to get to the US, they need a large amount of money for a visa and travel costs. These so-called guest workers usually borrow the needed money to arrive in the United States. Upon their arrival, their papers are seized by the businesses who’ve sponsored them. The job is not offered immediately, and the individual has to pay exorbitant fees for subhuman housing [14], which of course, the guest worker can’t afford, so he is compelled to pay them off along with his other debts he left behind in his homeland.

After this process, the owner of the industry has a slave, who has to work day and night to pay off his debts. In case of any complaint, he is threatened with delivery to immigration officials to be deported. In a slightly different scenario, people who have entered the US as guest workers on the H-2B visas don’t receive the job that they were promised before leaving their home country. Upon their arrival in America, their papers are confiscated by the business owner, who may tear up their passports [15], in case the guest worker wants to leave, and thus forces them to stay and work under whatever conditions he has set.

Many reports point to a system of “legalized slavery” where workers are denied health care, cannot work for anyone else, and are rented to other employers (even the military). Sexual harassment is still rampant against these modern slaves and they are routinely threatened with deportation, which workers fear because they cannot pay the initial debt they left in their homeland [16].

During the era of chattel slavery, it is said that every year 60,000 slaves [17] were killed in the United States. Against that record, consider that currently, 60,000 modern slaves enter the US, and they are deported or fired in case they cannot fulfill the required task. In 2000, a leaked report by the CIA announced that around 50,000 people are sold into slavery in the United States in a span of 12 months [18]. The same numbers of people are now entering America on the H-2B visa program, which is, essentially, slave labor. The numbers of H-2B (slavery) visas announced officially are projected to quadruple in 2016 and this number will stand at 250,000 people every year [19]. The decision is made, despite the businesses that are seeking "temporary workers" must provide evidence to the Department of Labor that they cannot find Americans for these jobs. These businesses place ads in low-circulation publications, where Americans won’t see them and thus the problem of providing proof is solved, while many businesses who demand H-2B guest workers are in regions with double-digit unemployment rates at the height of recession in 2008[20]. The official slavery programs will continue to expand, despite the many reports that point to the abuses stemming from the H-2B visa program.









[1] Hodgetts, Darrin, et al. Social Psychology and Everyday Life. s.l. : Palgrave Macmillan, 2010. Available at:

[2] [Online]

[3] The Thirteenth Amendment of the United States clearly states: 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.

[4] Blackmon, Douglas A. Slavery by Another Name: The re-enslavement of black americans from the civil war to World War Two. s.l. : Icon Books, 2012.

[5] —. America's 21st Century Slavery. HuffingtonPost. [Online] 02 28, 2013. [Cited: 01 23, 2016.]

[6] Breaking Down Mass Incarceration in the 2010 Census: State-by-State Incarceration Rates by Race/Ethnicity. Prison Policy Initiative. [Online] 05 28, 2014. [Cited: 01 23, 2016.]

[7] [Online]

[8] Bonczar, Thomas and Herberman, Erinn. Probation and Parole in the United States, 2013. Bureau of Justice Statistics. [Online] 10 28, 2014. [Cited: 01 23, 2016.]

[9] Regnier, Corinna. It's Sinister: We're Locking Up Poor People in Debtor's Prisons to Fund Police Depts. Alternet. [Online] 05 26, 2015. [Cited: 01 23, 2016.]

[10] [Online]

[11] Starr, Terrell Jermaine. 23 cents an hour? Here’s the perfectly legal modern-day slavery happening in 21st Century America. Raw story. [Online] 07 07, 2015. [Cited: 01 23, 2016.]

[12] Groom, Nichola. Prison labor helps U.S. solar company manufacture at home. Reuters. [Online] 06 10, 2015. [Cited: 06 10, 2016.]

[13] Winter, Caroline. What Do Prisoners Make for Victoria's Secret? Mother Jones. [Online] 08 2008. [Cited: 01 25, 2016.]

[14] Turner, Jennifer. US Admits Modern-Day Slavery Exists at Home. American Civil Liberties Union. [Online] 06 06, 2014. [Cited: 01 23, 2016.]

[15] Close to Slavery: Guestworker Programs in the United States. [Online] 02 18, 2013. [Cited: 01 23, 2016.]

[16] Rosenfeld, Steven. The 21st-Century Version of Slavery Is Widespread In America. Alternet. [Online] 05 18, 2013. [Cited: 01 23, 2016.]

[17] Thompson, George and Breckinridge, Robert Jefferson. Discussion on American Slavery, Between George Thompson: Agent of the British and Foreign Society for the Abolition of Slavery Throughout the World, and Robert J. Breckinridge, Delegate from the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the United St. s.l. : Knapp, 1836. Available at:

[18] Richard, Amy O’Neill. International Trafficking in Women to the United States: A Contemporary Manifestation of Slavery and Organized Crime. s.l. : CIA, 1999. Available at:

[19] May, Caroline. Omnibus Increases Number of Unskilled Guest Workers. Breitbart. [Online] 12 16, 2015. [Cited: 01 23, 2016.]

[20] Seminara, David. Dirty Work: In-Sourcing American Jobs with H-2B Guestworkers . Center For Immigration Studies. [Online] 01 2010. [Cited: 01 23, 2016.]