Convict leasing was essentially a new form of slavery that started after the Civil War and went on for decades across the South. States and companies got rich by arresting mostly Black men and then forcing them to work for major companies.
The 13th Amendment, passed after the Civil War, banned slavery and involuntary servitude. But it made an exception for people convicted of a crime, offering legal cover for convict leasing. Many states adopted similar language in their constitutions that still exists today.
The racial makeup of prison populations changed almost overnight after the Civil War. In Tennessee, during slavery less than 5 percent of the prisoners were Black. In 1866, after emancipation, that number jumped to 52 percent. And by 1891 it had skyrocketed to 75 percent. Black codes are laws passed by states that targeted African Americans for minor crimes such as vagrancy, jumping a ride on a train car or not having proof of employment. In Tennessee, people were sentenced up to five years of hard labor in the coal mine for having interracial relationships.
“The reality is that it is 2022 and in the United States, slavery is still legal,” said Bianca Tylek, founder and executive director of the non-profit Worth Rises.
A report published by the American Civil Liberties Union in June 2022 found about 800,000 prisoners out of the 1.2 million in state and federal prisons are forced to work, generating a conservative estimate of $11bn annually in goods and services while average wages range from 13 cents to 52 cents per hour. Five states – Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Mississippi and Texas – force prisoners to work without pay.
The report concluded that the labor conditions of US prisoners violate fundamental human rights to life and dignity.
Johnny Perez made sheets, underwear and pillowcases working for Corcraft, a manufacturing division of New York State Correctional Services that uses prisoners to manufacture products for state and local agencies. His pay ranged between 17 cents and 36 cents an hour.
“We have a system that forces people to work and not only forces them to work but does not give them an adequate living wage,” said Perez. “Slavery by any name is wrong. Slavery in any shape or form is wrong.” Perez emphasized that in prison, individuals aren’t provided adequate basic necessities such as food, toiletries, clothing and office supplies, and that the measly wages paid by these jobs don’t cover these extra expenses. Refusing a work assignment can also have adverse consequences, he said, ranging from being placed in solitary confinement to having any work issues placed on your record which affects parole and status within a prison that determines what privileges you receive. Workers in prison do not get any paid time off and are often forced to work even when sick unless an infirmary affirms they are not able to work.