Modern Slavery in American Prisons

Modern Slavery: How world's largest prison population developed into a well-off business

The prison industrial complex is a basis for the conservative neo-liberal policies developing in the age of globalization since the early 1970s. These policies have increased the exclusion of Black and Latino communities in the United States and they have a big share of responsibility for the dire treatment of minorities in this country. The United States holds the unprecedented record number of prisoners in the entire history of mankind; such a record does not exist anywhere else in today’s world. The United States of America comprises only five percent of the world population but surprisingly has 25% of the world prison population [1]. Between 1970 and 2000, the number of prisoners in the US was 2,200,000 people [2]. While these numbers show state and federal prison population, it does not include the 750,000 Americans in jails on a daily basis as well as an annual jail population that reaches 13 million [3]. The statistics show a 500% increase in US prison population while the total population of America has only increased by 45 percent. Behind the scenes of the US prison industrial complex you can find:

“the political and economic interests of America’s elite: laws; zealous prosecutors; the legislative, judicial, and executive branches at the local, state, and federal levels; the media; transnational corporations; schools; the church; the police; virtually every American institution; and the ideologies and rhetoric of racism, fear, and crime and punishment all work together to maintain the world’s largest prison system.”[4]

The racialized war on drugs, the harsh laws and mandatory sentences in a conservative era, economic restructuring, globalization, and the prison industrial complex are the factors responsible for this huge number of prisoners in the US. Julia Sudbury [1], a board member of the Prison Activist Resource Center and Chair of Ethnic Studies at Mills College, refers to the prison industrial complex in the U.S. as a “…symbiotic and profitable relationship between politicians [state and national], corporations [executives and shareholders], the media, and state correctional institutions [including correctional officers’ unions] that generates the racialized use of incarceration as a response to social problems rooted in the globalization of capital.”[5]


One might argue that the huge population of imprisoned people is mainly because they are real criminals who deserve to be kept in prisons; that is not the case. The number of people behind bars continues to increase tremendously, while the crime rate has seen a downward trend. Despite the fact that violent crime has declined in the United States[6], the incarceration rate has tripled since 1980[7]. About 13 million people are brought to American jails in any given year. It is totally absurd to mention that more than six million people are under "correctional supervision" in the US. These statistics are surprising, since 1 in 50 Americans has experienced prison somewhere in their lifetime, either as inmates, or while on parole or probation. Currently, one out of every 100 Americans is being imprisoned.[8]


This is not a paradox as it may seem. Prisons have long been a burden on the shoulders of any world government, because they must provide prisoners with essentials of food and a place for them to sleep during their time incarcerated; this translates as a cost with no financial return.


American companies now offer an inhumane solution to the problem by signing a contract to manage these prisons and pay a considerable amount of money to the government for letting them have these prisons. The financial justification for managing a prison and paying for the living expenses of the prisoners becomes apparent when corporate executives realize that they can use the prisoners basically as slave labor, paying them as little as 25 cents per hour (or $20 per month) to do the same work that the average laborer makes the minimum wage of $7.25 per hour, which is the federally mandated minimum wage in the US [9]. In return, companies require the government to equip prisons with at least 1,000 beds and maintain a 90 percent occupancy rate in these privately run prisons for a period of 20 years [10].



 Federal inmates in the UNICOR program sew uniforms for U.S. soldiers. UNICOR, a government-owned corporation, has an annual revenue of more than $600 million for manufacturing items with penal labor.


Twenty five cents an hour amounts to slavery! But who cares? The 13th amendment to US constitution legally mandated this form of slavery in 1865, stating:


"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."


Therefore that kind of slavery was made a totally legal issue in the United States.  It is legal, but not humane, because it has given rise to a trend of imprisoning innocent people. American courts are being lobbied to issue disproportionate rulings over small infractions; especially, when the convict is a black man. The US prison industry has caused people to be put behind the bars mostly for non-violent crimes, with long prison sentences for having very little quantities of illegal drugs [11].

American laws are also biased to the detriment of black people. Laws rule that possession of 5 grams of crack cocaine or 3.5 ounces of heroin is punishable by five years of imprisonment without possibility of parole, while the sentence for possession of less than 2 ounces of rock-cocaine or crack is 10 years. In contrast, possession of the powdered form of cocaine, which is used mainly by white people, receives a shorter prison sentence--the possession of 17.5 ounces of cocaine powder entails 5 years in prison. In the land of the free, American Black males are 30% likely to be put in jail. This number is 16% for Latinos while for Whites it is only four percent. These numbers clearly show that the prison industrial complex specifically targets Black people.[12]

Young Black males — mainly high school dropouts — are constantly setting new records. The incarceration rate for Black males who are between 25 to 29 years old is 13 percent, while this number is 2 percent for White people and 4 percent of the Hispanics in that age group. Half of all young Black males without a high school diploma who are active in the workforce are passing their lives working for American companies behind bars, while the other half is working from outside the bars. Meanwhile, according to statistics, young White males who do not have a high school diploma hold an incarceration rate of 1 in 10. This high incarceration rate among the black youth affects their employment prospects and tarnishes their likelihood for success in marriage and parenting, which might be helpful in closing the achievement gap. This situation means a growing chance for a Black male to return to prison and also increases the likelihood of his children to have the same prospect; this means more profit for the companies which use their labor in prison for almost nothing in return.[13]


This data is of no concern to the companies who are lobbying to fill their private prisons with more free workforce, and consequently lining their pockets. US prisons could have been a place that provides educational opportunities and job training, or prepares inmates for earning a living when their sentence is complete; unfortunately, the prison industrial complex exploits them so as to make products at more competitive prices.










[1] Henderson, Alex. 9 Surprising Industries Profiting Handsomely from America's Insane Prison System. ALTERNET. [Online] 02 18, 2015. [Cited: 02 06, 2016.]


[2] Pelaez, Vicky. The Prison Industry in the United States: Big Business or a New Form of Slavery? Global Research Center for Research on Globalization. [Online] 03 31, 2014. [Cited: 02 06, 2016.]


[3] Incarceration nation. Collier, Lorna. 9, Chicago : American Psychological Association, 10 2014, Vol. 45. Available at:


[4] Leonard, David J. After Artest: The NBA and the Assault on Blackness. s.l. : SUNY Press, 2012. Available at:


[5] Souls: A Critical Journal of Black Politics, Culture, and Society. Sokoloff, Natalie. 4, s.l. : Taylor and Francis Online, 2003, Vol. 5. DOI: 10.1080//10999940390463356.


[6] Markon, Jerry. Violent crime in U.S. on the decline. The Washington Post. [Online] 05 25, 2010. [Cited: 02 06, 2016.]


[7] Gopnik, Adam. The Caging of America: Why do we lock up so many people? The New Yorker. [Online] 01 30, 2012. [Cited: 02 06, 2016.]


[8] Ridgeway, James. Locking Up Profits. readersupportednews. [Online] 11 11, 2011. [Cited: 02 06, 2016.]


[9] Minimum Wage. United States Department of Labor . [Online] [Cited: 02 06, 2016.]


[10] Whitehead, John W. Jailing Americans for Profit: The Rise of the Prison Industrial Complex. huffingtonpost. [Online] 04 10, 2012. [Cited: 02 06, 2016.]


[11] Williams, Dianne. Race, Ethnicity, and Crime. s.l. : Algora Publishing, 2012. p.57. Available at:


[12] Shakur, Sanyika. THE PATHOLOGY OF PATRIARCHY: A SEARCH FOR CLUES AT THE SCENE OF THE CRIME. Prison Focus. Number 39, 2013, Available at:


[13] Locked Up and Locked Out: An Educational Perspective on the U.S. Prison Population. Coley, Richard J. and Barton, Paul E. Ewing, NJ : Educational Testing Service, 2006. NCJ 233269. Available at: