Ending US jail workers' slavery clause 'could net billions'

Inmates sort laundry at the Orange County jail in Santa Ana, California, May 24, 2011. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson

Inmates sort laundry at the Orange County jail in Santa Ana, California, May 24, 2011. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson

What’s the context?

Here's how this study quantifies the benefits of ending the 'exception clause' in the abolition of slavery for US prisoners

  • Net benefits could top $20 billion per year
  • 'Abolition Amendment' pushed at federal level
  • Prisoners can earn less than $1 per hour for work   

RICHMOND, Virginia – Ending unpaid labour in U.S. prisons could net up to $20 billion a year, new research said on Wednesday, potentially boosting a push to scrap the exception to the abolition of slavery that allows "involuntary servitude" as punishment.

The 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution - passed 159 years ago on Wednesday - abolished slavery except as punishment for crimes. That left the door open, advocates say, for prisons to exploit the cheap or free labour of the incarcerated.

Around 1.2 million people were jailed in U.S. state and federal prisons at the end of 2022. Of those, some 800,000 work, many of whom earn less than $1 per hour, said the study by consultants Edgeworth Economics, released by advocacy group Worth Rises.

The U.S. federal minimum wage is $7.25 per hour.

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Weighing the fiscal benefits to ending the exception like increased wages and support to families and subtracting costs to taxpayers, like payroll expenses, would net between $18.3 billion and $20.3 billion annually, the report found.

"The benefits of paying fair wages to people far outstrips the costs," said Bianca Tylek, executive director of Worth Rises. "There is every reason for policymakers to want to engage in this."

The study said the increased wage costs would be more than offset by allowing prisoners to better support themselves and their families, and boost their earnings after release. Crime victims would also benefit from more payment of restitution.

It was the first time such an intricate study examining the anticipated benefits to ending the "exception clause" had been done, Tylek said.

"There's no excuse anymore that we don't know what the impact will be," she said.

The study presumes that additional legislation, like new labour and wage protections for incarcerated, would likely need to be passed for the projected benefits to come to fruition.

'Coffins and hand sanitizer'

Some members of Congress have been pushing to end the exception to the 13th amendment in recent years, though changing the U.S. Constitution would also require support from three-quarters of U.S. states – making a national effort harder. 

But since 2018, seven states - Colorado, Alabama, Vermont, Tennessee, Oregon, Nebraska, and Utah – have taken steps to remove the slavery exception from their own constitutions, providing some momentum to the overall push.

"A lot of the state amendments started with ballot initiatives," said Miriam Becker-Cohen, appellate counsel at the Constitutional Accountability Center, a non-profit law firm and think tank.

"People on the ground are recognising that slavery still exists in this country and that it's a critical problem that we have the tools to help eradicate," she said.

In New York, lawmakers have been considering new legislation that would end slavery and involuntary servitude for those convicted of crimes, as well as a separate bill to establish labour rights for the incarcerated.

The exception bill goes further than other state constitutional amendments in that it also says those imprisoned cannot be threatened with punishment for refusing to work, said Jesse Koklas with Citizen Action of New York, an advocacy group.

"In New York, folks were making coffins and hand sanitizer during the pandemic and they weren't even allowed to use the hand sanitizer because there's alcohol in it," Koklas said. "And they didn't have (protective equipment) when they were working." 

"That injustice right there, I think, really opened a lot of people's eyes."

Though the study being released on Wednesday focuses on the potential fiscal costs and benefits of ending the exception clause, there would undoubtedly be intangible effects as well.

"When we talk to people who are incarcerated or formerly incarcerated, we ask them what it would mean to have the protection from slavery," Tylek said. 

"I would say nine-out-of-10 times the response I get is 'it would mean that people would see me as human.'"

(Reporting by David Sherfinski; Editing by Jon Hemming.)

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