David Shinn, Arizona Department of Corrections director, raised eyebrows with comments he made while testifying about a new private prison contract in the state. Referring to work done by inmates of a prison in the city of Florence, Shinn argued that the prisoners provided services that could not otherwise be performed “at a rate that most jurisdictions could ever afford. If you were to remove these folks from that equation,” Shinn argued, “things would collapse in many of your counties, for your constituents.” In other words, the state needs to be able to make people work without paying them.
Several commentators were quick to note that the logic used in Arizona sounds an awful lot like the rationale for keeping slavery in the American South before the Civil War. “This is what happens when a society uses slavery to function,” posted one user on Twitter.
The 13th Amendment, passed and ratified after the Civil War, forbids slavery or involuntary servitude “except as a punishment for crime.” This exception is in part what allows for incarceration and for prison labor in the United States, which has the most prisoners of any country in the world. Experts such as academic Michelle Alexander and filmmaker Ava DuVernay have highlighted how this loophole helped create a system for mass incarceration targeted toward black men in particular.
Arizona’s private prisons are being challenged by several sources. The NAACP filed a case in 2020 that alleged in part that the Arizona prison labor system violated the 13th Amendment ban on slavery, but a federal court dismissed the case in 2021. A group of investigative journalists recently revealed “questionable practices” by Arizona private prisons, with hundreds of local businesses contracting to have prisoners perform manual labor and only receiving cents per hour for their work.
With incarcerated labor servicing businesses throughout Arizona and the country as a whole, private prisons remain in business and the economics of slave labor continue to drive mass incarceration in 2022.
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