Does Slavery Still Exist in America?

An introduction to my topic and why I chose it

You can read my full personal interest essay here.


Slavery in the Americas first began in the sixteenth century, when Europeans began to rely on Africans as their source of labor since they could be brought over by the thousand through the transatlantic slave trade. Through the passing of laws called Slave Codes, the institution of slavery in the British Colonies turned into a raced based and hereditary system that considered the laborers as property (Kennedy et. al).The debate over the legalization of slavery in America was first brought up during the Constitutional Convention in 1787 where the founding fathers decided to continue the slave trade until 1808, but never made a definitive decision on the legalization of slavery (Kennedy et. al). As the country expanded, several compromises were made to keep the number of free and slave states balanced (Kennedy et. al). Coincidedly, the Abolitionist Movement, gained further attraction and support throughout the 1830’s till 1860 (Kennedy et. al). Slave owners and abolitionists could no longer live in peace together, and soon enough civil war broke out in 1861 (Kennedy et. al). When the American Civil War ended in 1865, congress passed the Thirteenth Amendment, which abolished: 

…slavery [and] involuntary servitude, except as punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted..”

Convict leasing(Library Of Congress)

Governments in the South soon created laws called “black codes” that made it easier to arrest African Americans (Carper 85). Convicts would then be leased out to plantation owners and forced to work–this form of involuntary servitude was called convict leasing (Blackmon 39). The end of convict leasing only came about after reports of white convict laborers being killed sparked a large outcry from the public, and by 1925 convict leasing ended in all states (Benns). Sharecropping (tenant farming) was another way that white southerners were able to essentially recreate slavery. After emancipation, many former slaves did not have enough money to move away from their former plantations, and would have no other option but to stay and work as sharecroppers (Kennedy et. al). Leaving was nearly impossible as many sharecroppers took out loans from the owner in order to pay for their crops and tools (Walters). Sharecropping eventually ended in the mid twentieth century after many African Americans moved away during what was known as the Great Migration (Walters). Many black sharecroppers and convicts who could not pay off their debt found themselves bound to plantation owners through peonage (debt slavery) (Carper). Even if they were not a sharecropper or a convict, many African Americans were falsely charged with owing someone debt (Blackmon 76). The end of peonage came about in 1941, when Congress passed Circular 359, which ordered the persecution of any case involving involuntary servitude or slavery (Blackmon 161). 

You can read my full essay on the history of forced labor here.


Louisiana State Penitentiary prison laborers working on a farm which used to be a plantation before the civil war (The Atlantic).
More info on prison labor and big business

As discussed before, the Thirteenth Amendment legalized slavery in the form of prison labor. One of the strongest points that ties prison labor to slavery is the demographic of these prisons. As a result of discriminatory laws, which caused over-policing in black communities, there has been an increasing number of  mass incarcerations of people of color (Blackmon). In the Louisiana State Penitentiary, the largest maximum security prison in the U.S, of the roughly 6,300 inmates, around 5,000(80%) are African American (Goldberg et. al), while only around 30% of Louisiana’s population is comprised of African Americans (U.S Census Bureau). Another aspect of prison labor that resembles slavery is prisoners’ wages and the type of work inmates do. The Bureau of Prison requires all inmates housed in federal prisons to work; most state prisons require the same (Kozlowska).In the last twenty years, the U.S government put more focus on putting prisoners in private prisons (Leung). In private prisons, prisoners get their wages from being forced to do maintenance work on the prison or unwillingly being contracted out to private businesses (Bozelko; Kozlowska). The average pay of an inmate working under a private business is around one dollar, but the prison takes 80% of their wages to pay for the cost of their incarceration (Bozelko). In public prisons, inmates are also forced to maintain the prison’s facilities, and include jobs such as agricultural farming, warehouse manufacturing, and kitchen work (Benns). There are also job training programs that prisoners in public prisons can join that teach inmates “marketable skills”, but they are highly selective; out of the thousands of applicants all over the country only 8% are admitted (BOP).  (BOP). Payment in public prisons can range anywhere from two cents to $1.15(Benns; BOP). If an inmate refuses to work, there are harsh consequences such as solitary confinement or losing visitation privileges (Wall et. al).

You can read my full essay on prison labor here.


Whether it is on an individual or institutional level, there are several ways that the problem of prison labor can be fixed. One way this problem is being solved inside of prisons is through job training programs that are designed to teach prisoners meaningful skills, that will help them once they get out (Leung). Programs, like UNICOR, are seemingly effective; for participants in the program there is a 24% decrease in recidivism and a 14% increase in employment the year after release (Lopez). Unfortunately, these helpful programs are not available to all prisoners, and the pay is still very low (BOP). Therefore, expanding programs like UNICOR into the sixteen current states where prisons do not run the program offers more people to participate(UNICOR). Another solution could be paying inmates more for their hard labor (Kozlowska). Many are skeptical of this solution because increasing the amount prisoners are paid would also increase taxpayer costs (Schwartzapfel). However, prisoners can be paid less than the federal minimum wage and still be able to support themselves once out of prison (Smith). 

Poster for the 2018 National Strike (mronline)

Inmates inside of prison are also taking a stand. In 2016, inmates organized labor strikes across twenty four states, which included forty to fifty prisons (Kozlowska). Once again, in 2018 prisons held labor strikes nationwide, with the goal being to increase prisoners’ wages, increase prison funding for rehabilitation programs, and expand access to rehabilitation programs to more inmates among other demands (Johnson).


Prisoners are not alone in this fight. Here are some ways you can help end slavery end in America. 

  1. Organizations such as the American Civil Liberties Union(ACLU) and the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee (IWOC)are some of the most well known prison labor activist groups, but there are countess of other groups across the country (Kozlowska; ACLU). Find a local group near you here.  
  2. Marches are another way that people outside of prisons are helping prisoners receive better treatment, and are very effective for gaining media attention and bringing awareness to the horrors of prison labor (Smith).

Although most prison labor activism may not lead to direct legal actions it is still important to raise awareness on the topic. State governments have regularly downplayed what goes on inside prisons whenever strikes or marches occur (Smith). Raising awareness and educating others on prison labor as a form of slave labor is important if any legal action is to be taken, for nothing can be done if people are unaware of the problem at hand.


Prison labor march in Oakland, CA (BradleyAllen)

You can read my full essay on prison labor solutions here.

works cited


Have you heard of prison labor before reading this presentation? 
What is one major takeaway you have?
How will you make a change and stand up for those in who do not have the opportunity to do so?

I would love to hear your answers. Also feel free to leave a comment with any feedback or questions.  


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