The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted structural inequities in many ways, namely through its disproportionate impact on the physical and psychological health of communities of color. It has also expanded the use of prison labor, as nearly every state in the United States has announced that it is relying on incarcerated populations to manufacture protective equipment, wash potentially contaminated hospital laundry, disinfect cleaning supplies, and dig graves. All the while, prisoners are denied access to hygiene products and basic medical care. In spite of the nation's dependence on prisoners, it continues to view their lives as disposable.
The United States has a long history of failing to provide labor protections and paying little-to-nothing for incarcerated labor, akin to modern-day slavery. It is not surprising that these operations have roots in Black chattel slavery. In the post-Civil War Reconstruction era, former slave owners in the South sought to replace the labor force that had worked for free under antebellum conditions. Southern states created the "black codes," a set of discriminatory laws that criminalized the everyday activities of former slaves so that they could be conveniently leased to work on private plantations, coal mines, and railyards. These practices were constitutional because of the loophole written into the Thirteenth Amendment that permits enslavement as a punishment for crime: "Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction."
As a result, more African Americans were sent to prison than ever before, and states put prisoners to work through the practice of convict leasing, in which prison labor is provided to private parties. Black prisoners were again living and working on plantations for no pay while states and corporations profited off of their subjugation. In 1882, for instance, nearly one in six Black prisoners died. Working prisoners to death was so common that not even one convict lived to serve a sentence of 10 years or more. On an average day between 1885 and 1920, it was found that anywhere between 10,000 and 20,000 Black Americans worked in these cruel circumstances, constituting a majority. In 1979, Congress created the Prison Industry Enhancement Certification Program, which allowed state officials to work with private industries to produce prison-made goods. This act marked the onset of the modern era of prison labor.
The system has since grown. Today, prisoners are still performing free or extremely underpaid labor, which enables companies to make a profit while subsidizing the cost of incarceration for states. Ironically, prison labor reinvigorates economic nationalism, as companies can brand their products as "Made in America" to appeal to customers and respond to calls...