Read the fine print: How the 13th Amendment Kept Slavery Legal
By Tayba Foundation
We are excited to feature the following article by Tayba Foundation. This is the first in a series of educational articles to answer important questions about incarceration in America. You can also find this and other articles by Tayba on their Medium.
“Wait, that can’t be right,” you might say. “The 13th amendment abolished slavery! We learned that in school!”
Well, as they say, read the fine print: the famous 13th amendment restricted slavery, it never fully abolished it:
“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.”
In other words: no more slavery… except prisoners — those are fair game.
Slaves were critical to the southern economy before the war. So what do you do as a southern state that just lost a whole lot of free human labor? Use the fine print to re-enslave the recently-freed African Americans, of course!
In the post-Emancipation years, southern states passed laws criminalizing all sorts of behaviors, including “vagrancy”, using obscene language, selling cotton after sunset, and even being unemployed¹². Those arrested for such crimes were so overwhelmingly black that “negro” and “convict” were often synonymous in official records³.
Under the convict lease system, these new slaves could be leased out to companies — sometimes even to the same plantation they were recently freed from — and forced to work. It was slavery all over again, but in obedience to the 13th amendment.
But since they were now “temporary workers”, companies that “leased” them had no incentive to care for their health. As a result, the conditions were often worse than those of slaves on pre-Emancipation plantations!⁴
In the words of W.E.B. Du Bois,
“Slavery was not abolished even after the Thirteenth Amendment. There were four million freedmen and most of them on the same plantation, doing the same work they did before emancipation, except as their work had been interrupted and changed by the upheaval of war.”⁵
Fast forward a century and a half later and the United States has the largest prison population in the world with over 2.3 million people currently imprisoned. Let that sink in for a moment. The US has more prisoners than China. Nearly 3x that of Brazil, 4x of Russia, and 5x of India.
But it’s not just the largest prison population by sheer number, it’s also the country that imprisons the biggest percentage of its people.
Iran imprisons 294 out of every 100,000 of its people. Russia: 363. The US? A whopping 698⁶. Even North Korea’s prison population is estimated at 600–800 per 100,000, so there’s a chance that it imprisons less people than the US.
And, unsurprisingly, according to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, close to 40% of the incarcerated population is black, despite being just 13% of the US free population.
Just as unsurprisingly, there’s still plenty of money to be made in the US prison system. Today it’s an $80 billion dollar industry that continues to profit off of prisoners and forced labor. Tayba students behind bars report being paid rates often starting at pennies per hour (pre-tax!) for high-impact jobs like teaching, cooking, and manufacturing, sometimes without proper workplace safety measures in place. For many, there’s no option to refuse the work. In some states, it’s even legal to force prisoners to work for free under the threat of solitary confinement.
“Well who cares?” you might say. “Crime shouldn’t pay!”
Except that many essential services in prison, such as calling your relatives on the outside or even purchasing feminine hygiene products, have to be paid for. So a female prisoner may need to work several weeks (even an entire month!) to purchase an extra tampon.
One Tayba student reported never having enough money for any canteen items after spending his entire paycheck on bare necessities. And while federal prisons accommodate religious dietary restrictions, eating halal in a state prison can in some cases mean daily PB&J sandwiches and little else… for years. (Fun fact: just 10% of prisoners are in federal prisons)
In some cases, relatives on the outside will pick up the bill to cover these expenses. This is one of the many ways the current prison system ends up costing those who didn’t commit the crime while enriching those who run the prisons.
And let’s not even get into the fact that hundreds of thousands of American prisoners shouldn’t be behind bars to begin with. We’ll deal with the issues contributing to that, like the school-to-prison pipeline, criminalization of mental illness, the broken public defender system, mandatory sentencing, and many others in future articles (you can subscribe to receive them all here).
The common rebuttal is that prison slave labor is a way to provide vocational training and reduce recidivism. Take the recent example of prisoners fighting California wildfires. Sounds like a great way to provide occupational training, right? Except that felons are prohibited from working as firefighters in California. So they’re essentially risking their lives for $2–5/day and no hope of doing the same work once they’re out in free society (update: California’s laws have recently been changed to finally make it possible for felons to work as firefighters)
For all the talk of recidivism, US prisons continue to fail to reform prisoners, with a whopping 77% of released prisoners going back to prison within 5 years⁷. Compare that to Norway’s 20%⁸.
In the meantime, companies like the Corrections Corporation of America (now called CoreCivic) bring in nearly $2 billion in revenue and $200 million in profits⁹ every year. Bonus: it’s a publicly-traded company, so you can buy its stock and reap the profits of slave labor even today! It’s no wonder that CoreCivic considers lowered incarceration rates as a material risk in their annual report¹⁰ and spends millions of dollars every year on lobbying for increased criminalization and longer sentences¹¹.
Crime, it seems, does pay. And that’s the long and short of it: if you want to understand the American prison system, just follow the money. When it becomes profitable to imprison as many people as possible for as long as possible, there’s little incentive to change the situation.
In the meantime, it remains up to the public to try to combat the worst effects of the system. Many non-profits tirelessly serve those behind bars to help them turn their life around and succeed once on the outside. We at Tayba Foundation try to focus on one of the most underserved prison populations: the Muslims.
Islam is a beacon of hope and transformation for many people behind bars. Muslims make up nearly 10% of the prison population (while they are just 1% of the population in free society) and the overwhelming majority of them have become Muslim while in prison.
For these new converts, the faith is a precious means of leaving their past behind and turning to something better, a tawba. But access to Islamic resources continues to be rare. Especially in state prisons, getting a copy of a Qur’an translation could be challenging, let alone any other materials. Many prisons have prisoners for imams, since the Muslim community has not provided one. Some of our students report having to wait 3 years for a basic fiqh question to be answered before they were introduced to Tayba.
Tayba fills that vacuum with a comprehensive Islamic curriculum tailored for the prison. We offer both basic courses helping prisoners learn to pray and fast to complex studies in hadith, fiqh, aqeeda, and other subjects.
As common among all prisoners, many of our students come from a drug-use background or suffer from mental health issues. We have programs in place to help them recover and prepare themselves for a successful life in free society. We also support them once they are released, by helping them with the job search, renting a place to live, and getting ahead with education.
A number of our students have gone on to become leaders in their Muslim communities. Others received undergraduate and graduate degrees. Some have even joined Tayba as faculty and staff.
If you’d like to learn more about our work or support it with your sadaqa or zakat, visit taybafoundation.org.
And if you’d like to get updated when we publish more articles on the US prison system and how Muslims are affected by it, you can sign up at the link here.
5- Black Reconstruction: An Essay Toward a History of the Part Which Black Folk Played in the Attempt to Reconstruct Democracy in America, 1860–1880 by W.E.B. Du Bois