If I tell you slavery still exists, will you believe me? If I tell you slavery was never abolished, but just reformed, will you believe me?
As someone who has been incarcerated in Rikers Island jails and other prisons in New York State, I know how it feels when you are forced into labor, forced to work 34–40 hours/week against your will, but only paid 16 cents an hour. Incarcerated individuals aren’t protected by the minimum wage, so we can be paid that little. We don’t have worker safety protections. We don’t have sick days. We can be forced into mandatory overtime. We don’t have the right to unionize.
Incarcerated individuals aren’t protected by the minimum wage, so we can be paid that little. We don’t have worker safety protections. We don’t have sick days. We can be forced into mandatory overtime. We don’t have the right to unionize.
Why? Because the 13th Amendment to the United States Constitution has a loophole that allowed for—that created—forced labor through mass incarceration. The 13th Amendment made chattel slavery and involuntary servitude unconstitutional, yet it included an insidious exception: “Except as a punishment for a crime.” This simple exception means instead of eliminating slavery, the 13th Amendment, ironically, extended it into perpetuity. It means the incarcerated can be exploited for their labor while others turn a profit. Companies like Corcraft, an entity within the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision, can get away with paying incarcerated people 16 cents an hour, while making upwards of $53 million a year in revenue from incarcerated labor. Incarcerated people are working for these slave labor wages, making the products we all use: making your license plates, answering your calls to the DMV, even making that emergency supply of hand sanitizer at the peak of the pandemic that New Yorkers used to protect themselves.
And we know who these people are, who are being impacted and exploited. In New York State, 30,803 people are currently incarcerated, and are disproportionately Black and Latinx. Black New Yorkers make up 18 percent of state residents, but 50 percent of those incarcerated. Latinx individuals make up 22 percent of the incarcerated population.
When I first stepped into Riverview State Correctional Facility in New York State after coming out of the Greene Correctional Solitary Confinement Box, I was required to work in the mess hall, making 16 cents an hour, working 34–40 hours/week and being forced to work overtime. We had to wake up at 5:30 AM in the morning to get to the mess hall to get an early start on preparing breakfast and lunch for 882 individuals in Riverview Correctional Facility. After my shift, I was exhausted and tired, and my feet were swollen. I remember going to the commissary to buy hygiene items like toothpaste and other necessities to live. Imagine finding out that despite getting up at 5:30 AM to work, working 34–40 hours/week, you only have $4 in your account. I only had four items that I had enough money to buy: toothpaste, one stamp to write my loved one, and two single Maruchan ramen soups, which I had to make last until the next week’s commissary trip. I had to survive by using the prison black market, by selling cigarettes. I was in full survival mode and the prison black market was my survival kit in prison.
People claiming they are for freedom while supporting forced labor dates back to the country’s origins. Even Benjamin Franklin, who was the head of the Philadelphia Society for the Relief of Free Negroes Unlawfully Held in Bondage an abolition club, and Alexander Hamilton, who was a part of an abolition club in New York called the New York Manumission Society, supported freedom in theory but refused to oppose slavery when it mattered most. According to Slavery’s Constitution: From Revolution To Ratication by David Waldstreicher, “Franklin justified not only his own mediating role in the convention but also silence about slavery, epitomized by his decison not to present the Philadelphia Abolition Society’s petition against the slave trade. Hamilton had made a similar choice with the New York society’s petition.”
When the 13th Amendment was passed by Congress on January 31, 1865, it was meant to abolish slavery in America after the Civil War. Ironically, it instead extended it into perpetuity in a deeply discriminatory manner, contiuing the hyopcrisy of the Founding Fathers. In 1867, the National Anti-Slavery Standard, the official weekly newspaper of American Anti-Slavery Society, called for the passage of a new amendment eliminating the words “except as a punishment for crime.” And yet, slavery hasn’t ended. It evolved in many shapes and forms, from convict leasing to the Black Codes that helped pave the way for Jim Crow laws in the late nineteenth through the mid-twentieth centuries. Today America has 1.8 million individuals incarcerated and 4.5 million people under some form of parole and probation. “More black men are behind bars or under the watch of the criminal justice system than were enslaved in 1850,” according to Michelle Alexander, the author of The New Jim Crow.
In New York City, the minimum wage starts at $15 dollars an hour. In the rest of the state, it’s $13.20. In prison in New York State, the minimum wage is 16 cents per hour and hasn’t seen an increase since 1992, when the governor was Mario Cuomo. But just as prices have risen outside of prison, commissary prices inside prison have skyrocketed since then.
Someone who is incarcerated in New York State has to work 15,000 hours, or seven years, to make what someone working for the New York City minimum wage makes in a month.
Someone who is incarcerated in New York State has to work 15,000 hours, or seven years, to make what someone working for the New York City minimum wage makes in a month. Even outside of New York City, outside of prison, the minimum wage means a worker will earn $2,112 in a month. An incarcerated person has to work 13,200 hours, or over six years, to even make the minimum wage of someone who lives outside of New York City.
New York State has a chance to end forced labor by passing legislation like the Abolish Penal Servitude Act, which was introduced by Senator Zellnor Myrie. The legislation will ensure incarcerated people in New York aren’t compelled or coerced to work against their will.
New York State can address wages as well. We can raise the minimum wage for the incarcerated, which will improve safety and rehabilitation in prisons and communities. In 2021, State Senator Zellnor Myrie introduced legislation to raise the minimum wage in prison, the Prison Minimum Wage Act. This legislation would raise the wages for detainees in New York State to $3 an hour.
Raising wages will ensure that people who are incarcerated are able to control their own future. They will be able to save money for their time beyond prison, which will in turn support their economic future and their ability to re-enter their community, and decrease their likelihood of returning to prison. When people come home from incarceration, there is no safety net to support their transition—even for the basics, like food, a toothbrush, or transportation to go to job interviews. Money they earned in prison can help.
There’s a history of activism for wages and working conditions for the incarcerated in our state. After the Attica Prison Uprising in 1971, detainees went on strike; they were getting paid less than a quarter an hour working in a metal shop. Detainees issued a list of demands, including the right to join labor unions and earn a minimum wage. Fifty years after the Attica Uprising, we are still calling for conditions to be seen—and fixed.
During the Civil Unrest in 2020, Confederate statues were removed across the country because of the protests about the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. But statues and slogans are not enough. Our policy has to be changed too, to actually tackle the racial inequities those protests were about. It’s time for New York State to treat the incarcerated—who are disproportionately Black and Latinx—fairly.
The time has come to recognize the humanity of all New Yorkers. That is why we are launching the #FixThe13thNY Campaign, to end the loophole to freedom from slavery in the 13th Amendment. Our campaign will eliminate slave labor in our state, increase wages for the incarcerated, and reject a penal labor system that allows for profiting off of human exploitation detainees. We must permanently ban legal slavery in our state.
Learn more about the #Fixthe13thNY Campaign, including how to get involved, here.