How Prison Labor is the New American Slavery and Most of Us Unknowingly Support it

If you buy products or services from any of the 50 companies listed below (and you likely do), you are supporting modern American slavery


Return to Now | June 13, 2016

American slavery was technically abolished in 1865, but a loophole in the 13th Amendment has allowed it to continue “as a punishment for crimes” well into the 21st century. Not surprisingly, corporations have lobbied for a broader and broader definition of “crime” in the last 150 years. As a result, there are more (mostly dark-skinned) people performing mandatory, essentially unpaid, hard labor in America today than there were in 1830.

With 5 percent of the world’s population and 25 percent of the world’s prison population, the United States has the largest incarcerated population in the world. No other society in history has imprisoned more of its own citizens. There are half a million more prisoners in the U.S. than in China, which has five times our population. Approximately 1 in 100 adults in America were incarcerated in 2014.  Out of an adult population of 245 million that year, there were 2.4 million people in prison, jail or some form of detention center.

The vast majority – 86 percent – of prisoners have been locked up for non-violent, victimless crimes, many of them drug-related.

. . .

While prison labor helps produce goods and services for almost every big business in America, here are a few examples from an article that highlights the epidemic:

Whole Foods – You ever wonder how Whole Foods can afford to keep their prices so low (sarcasm)? Whole Foods’ coffee, chocolate and bananas might be “fair trade,” but the corporation has been offsetting the “high wages” paid to third-world producers with not-so-fair-wages here in America.

The corporation, famous for it’s animal welfare rating system, apparently was not as concerned about the welfare of the human “animals” working for them in Colorado prisons until April of this year.

You know that $12-a-pound tilapia you thought you were buying from “sustainable, American family farms?” It was raised by prisoners in Colorado, who were paid as little as 74 cents a day. And that fancy goat cheese? The goats were raised and milked by prisoners too.

McDonald’s – The world’s most successful fast food franchise purchases a plethora of goods manufactured in prisons, including plastic cutlery, containers, and uniforms. The inmates who sew McDonald’s uniforms make even less money by the hour than the people who wear them.


Wal-Mart – Although their company policy clearly states that “forced or prison labor will not be tolerated by Wal-Mart,” basically every item in their store has been supplied by third-party prison labor factories. Wal-Mart purchases its produce from prison farms, where laborers are often subjected to long hours in the blazing heat without adequate food or water.

Victoria’s Secret – Female inmates in South Carolina sew undergarments and casual-wear for the pricey lingerie company. In the late 1990’s, two prisoners were placed in solitary confinement for telling journalists that they were hired to replace “Made in Honduras” garment tags with “Made in USA” tags.

AT&T – In 1993, the massive phone company laid off thousands of telephone operators—all union members—in order to increase their profits. Even though AT&T’s company policy regarding prison labor reads eerily like Wal-Mart’s, they have consistently used inmates to work in their call centers since ’93, barely paying them $2 a day.


BP (British Petroleum) – When BP spilled 4.2 million barrels of oil into the Gulf coast, the company sent a workforce of almost exclusively African-American inmates to clean up the toxic spill while community members, many of whom were out-of-work fisherman, struggled to make ends meet. BP’s decision to use prisoners instead of hiring displaced workers outraged the Gulf community, but the oil company did nothing to reconcile the situation.


The full list of companies implicated in exploiting prison labor includes:

Bank of America
John Deere
Eli Lilly and Company
Exxon Mobil
Johnson and Johnson
Koch Industries
Procter & Gamble
ConAgra Foods

While not all prisoners are “forced” to work, most “opt” to because life would be even more miserable if they didn’t, as they have to purchase pretty much everything above the barest necessities (and sometimes those too) with their hard-earned pennies. Some of them have legal fines to pay off and families to support on the outside. Often they come out more indebted than when they went in. . .

Source: How Prison Labor is the New American Slavery and Most of Us Unknowingly Support it

19 thoughts on “How Prison Labor is the New American Slavery and Most of Us Unknowingly Support it

  1. Pingback: Prisons for Profit? | cigarman501

  2. I did not really want to “like” this because this is just so horrible! But how we can get around purchasing products from at least one of these corporations, I don’t know because they’ve cornered the market. With the “mom and pops’ pretty much gone, it’s either flea markets or consignment shops or thrift stores and some people are just not into making their own soap and tooth paste.

    Unfortunately, there is no ground swell movement to bring the plight of these ‘slaves’ to the forefront and keep it there. Yes, there are a few groups who are attempting to shed a light on this atrocity, but there should be more of a hue and cry over this!

    Thank you for bringing this to our attention, Dr. Bramhall.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Excellent point Shelby about the difficulty finding alternatives – and about making the public more aware of prison slavery. It would be excellent to see some kind of campaign on college campuses like they had over 3rd world child labor about 15 years ago. Perhaps we should be doing more blogs about alternatives to corporate products. I myself stopped patronizing many of these companies years ago – I was no longer able to support their corporate crimes without feeling dirty all over.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I understand the complaint, but are they forced into these jobs, and isn’t working better than sitting in a cell all day and pass their time faster? Idk. I know years ago in TX the state prisons made license plates.


    • Hi Rugby. Thanks for commenting. I can see you like to play the Devil’s advocate. To answer your first question, yes, many states force prisoners to work. In the second place, for corporations to use prison labor and not pay minimum wage is the grossest kind of exploitation. In the third place, the majority of of these prisoners shouldn’t be in prison in the first place. They are either mentally ill or guilty of victimless crimes such as marijuana possession (which is legal now many places in the world) and in many, many cases they aren’t guilty of anything – they have been forced to cop a plea due to their inability to get good legal representation. Michelle Alexander describes this quite eloquently in her book The New Jim Crow:

      Liked by 1 person

      • Thanks for bringing this situation out to more people. I realize there are also many people in prison where are innocent of any crime besides being where they are or who they’re with. I know it’s a flawed system, and corrupt. The companies taking advantage deserve this publicity. If I were God, I could weed out the very dangerous guilty, but I’m not. Marijuana is not a guiltless crime when used like alcohol by parents who dangerously neglect their children. I also agree you have to be mentally ill to commit murder. I hope that explains my comment a bit. I was only trying to say that letting people “rot” in prison is not good for anyone.


        • I think what stuartbramhall is trying to point out is that essentially by “allowing” corporations to take advantage of very cheap labor, there is a motivating factor for courts to incarcerate. I’m sure that these corporations offer some kind of “kickback” to the prison system. The big question is where does that money go?
          What would make more sense to me, is that they make minimum wage and a portion of that is withheld to offset the cost of their incarceration.


          • Thanks for commenting, Maria. Your suggestions make sense. As a psychiatrist, I would support making mental health and alcohol/drug treatment freely available to the 70-80% of inmates who require these services. It’s really the taxpayer who is being ripped off by warehousing these people in prisons. It now costs close to $100,000 a year per inmate to incarcerate someone – whereas treatment costs $30,000 a year or less.


  4. Thanks for sharing. This is life. Welcome to the freak show as George Carlin said. When you live in USA, you have a front row seat. Blessings to you.


  5. Pingback: How Prison Labor is the New American Slavery and Most of Us Unknowingly Support it | ashiftinconsciousness

  6. Pingback: AMERIKA: How Prison Labor is the New American Slavery and Most of Us Unknowingly Support it | RIELPOLITIK

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.