Louisiana Votes Against Banning Slavery, Involuntary Servitude, Really
Contrary to popular belief, slavery wasn’t abolished with the end of the Civil War; it was just given another name and this week Louisiana voters decided they are still not ready to outlaw all forms of slavery and involuntary servitude.
Louisiana voters defeated an amendment to the state constitution that would have prohibited all forms of slavery and involuntary servitude, including in prisons. Last week, four other states, Alabama, Oregon, Tennessee and Vermont, all passed amendments against any slavery and involuntary servitude.
The 13th Amendment of 1865 prohibited chattel slavery but continued to permit “slavery [and] involuntary servitude” as “a punishment for crime.” For prisoners today, the modern versions of slavery and involuntary servitude continues behind the walls of the prisons with the blessings of the government.
And it should come as no surprise that the most effected are African Americans. African Americans are disproportionately impacted by slavery and involuntary servitude as they are imprisoned at nearly five times the rate of White Americans, according to a report by The Sentencing Project. The report found that one in 81 Black adults per 100,000 people in the U.S. is in a state prison.
At the dreadful Louisiana State Penitentiary, it means that 5,040 African Americans along with 1,260 other prisoners will continue to be enslaved under substandard conditions and paid a pittance for their work at the penitentiary, the largest maximum security prison in the country.
The penitentiary is known as “Angola” after the former slave plantation that occupied the territory. The plantation was named after the African country of Angola from where many slaves originated were forcibly enslaved before arriving in Louisiana.
The facility has a long and sordid history of abuse and poor conditions. In 1952, 31 inmates cut their Achilles tendons, in protest of the prison’s conditions. It led to exposes by national new organization. In its November 22, 1952, issue, Collier’s Magazine referred to Angola as “the worst prison in America.”
In 1971 the American Bar Association criticized the state of Angola, describing conditions as “medieval, squalid and horrifying.”
Efforts to reform and improve conditions at Angola have continued. In 1975 U.S. District Judge Frank Polozola declared conditions at Angola to be in a state of emergency. As a result, the state installed a new warden, Ross Maggio, who improved conditions somewhat.
On June 21, 1989, U.S. District Judge Polozola declared a new state of emergency at Angola. In 2004 Paul Harris of The Guardian wrote, “Unsurprisingly, Angola has always been famed for brutality, riots, escape and murder.”
In March 2019, seven members of staff at the facility were arrested for rape, smuggling items to inmates, and maintaining personal relationships with prisoners.
In 2020, prisoners alleged that deliberate low testing rates for COVID-19 masked an epidemic in the prison. Some sick inmates “concealed their symptoms to try to avoid losing their freedom of movement and other privileges” because of extended quarantines, according to a published report.
In 2018, Colorado voters voted to abolish slavery in all forms by any name in any place. But slavery was still permitted as a form of criminal punishment in Louisiana, Nevada, South Carolina, Tennessee and Wisconsin. Last week, voters in Vermont, Tennessee, Oregon and Alabama amended their state constitutions to abolish slavery and indentured servitude.
Bit Louisiana voters rejected an amendment to the state constitution to ban slavery and involuntary servitude and to abolish slave wages and coerced labor inside prisons. The plan, “Amendment 7,” was defeated after its sponsor, Rep. Edmond Jordan, a Black Democrat, advised voters to reject its compromise language and send it back for revisions.
“Amendment 7” would have abolished slavery and involuntary servitude, but with an exception for lawfully administered criminal punishment. The criminal code in Louisiana allows for a convicted person to be sentenced to prison and hard labor, making Amendment 7 no different than the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, according to proponents of prison reform.
In 1870, former Confederate major Samuel Lawrence James was awarded the authority to lease out all of Louisiana’s prisoners. By 1880, he had purchased Angola and moved prisoners there to work his new plantation.
Soon after the 13th Amendment was passed, white southerners rebuilt their slave power, by arresting former slaves under new, “black codes.” Once imprisoned, the former slaves were “leased” to business owners to work on plantations, in mines and constructing railroads without pay. PBS Newshour reported that the convict leasing system was more brutal and more deadly than chattel slavery.
Freed slaves ended up in prison for various, trumped up offenses, from not carrying out their sharecropping commitments to petty thievery, even without adequate evidence of a crime. The slaves-turned-prisoners were then leased to work on cotton plantations, coal mines, and railroads. In Mississippi, prison farms replaced slave plantations, and some of them existed until the 1970s. In effect, the freed slaves were no longer free.
The site of the prison was owned before the Civil War by Isaac Franklin, owner of Franklin & Armfied, then the largest slave trading firm in the country. In 1880, the state leased the property to a confederate army officer, Samuel L. James, to use to imprison former slaves. James bought several plantations across Louisiana where prisoners were housed in the old slave quarters and worked on his plantations. The prisoners also were leased to businesses to build levees, dig railroad tunnels, build roads, reclaim lowlands, and harvest crops.
The State of Louisiana purchased the prison camp from the James family in 1900, when prisoners were forced to work for practically nothing, making license tags, and working at printing services, and a mattress factory. Inmates also cultivate, harvest, and process a variety of crops, making the facility self-supporting.
Convict leasing was prohibited in Louisiana in 1898 and was barred anywhere in the U.S. in 1941.
In August 2018, prisoners at the Tennessee penitentiary began a nationwide strike, one of the largest protests of incarcerated men and women in U.S. history. In Alabama, thousands of prisoners struck this past September to protest atrocious prison conditions across the state, where facilities are overcrowded, understaffed and notoriously dangerous.
Prisons and many businesses rely on the forced, free labor or practically free labor of prisoners, making prison labor a multi-billion-dollar industry. The non-profit prisonpolicy.org reported in November on prisoner payments at state-owned businesses. It found that the worst was the Alabama correctional system which paid prisoners from 25 cents to 75 cents per hour in state-owned businesses. Other lowest of the low-paying states included Arizona, which paid from 20 cents an hour to 80 cents an hour; Connecticut paid from 13 cents to $1.50 an hour; and Florida paid prisoners from 20 cents an hour to 55 cents an hour.
The failure to repeal laws allowing slavery and involuntary servitude means that companies like the giant Aramark will continue to reap profits while using prison workers who are sometimes paid less than $1 a day.
Aramark claims it is the second largest provider of food and facilities services in North America, serving school districts, colleges and universities, healthcare facilities, businesses, sports, entertainment venues, convention centers, national and state parks, and prisons. The company reported serving 400 million prison meals annually and working in more than 500 prisons as of 2018.
Aramark operates prison kitchen maintenance and cleaning, laundry facilities, a gift package system, and property rooms, where prisons store prisoner belongings. Aramark has operations in 19 countries, reaping 2020 revenues of $12.8 billion, including about 12 percent from prison business.
Aramark has a long history of providing sub-standard food and servings in prisons. The company has been accused of severe health and safety violations, sanitation violations, unauthorized food substitutions, undercooked food, and food shortages. In 2019, Aramark was sued by prisoners at California’s Santa Rita Jail for serving expired and spoiled food, as well as food infested with rodent, insect and bird droppings.
In 2015, the State of Michigan canceled Aramark’s contract to provide food to its prisons and jails and fined the company $200,000 because of food shortages, unauthorized menu substitutions, and inappropriate relations between company employees and prisoners.
Aramark was sued in 2019 for involuntary servitude at Santa Rita Jail in Alameda County, Calif. Prisoners were forced to perform unpaid labor under threat of longer sentences, solitary confinement, and transfers, according to the lawsuit.
In a Feb. 15 report, Careeradict.com noted that around 63,000 prisoners produce goods for external sale, some for government agencies, and some for the private market. Since the COVID-19 pandemic, some companies have resorted to exploiting prison labor for goods and services, such as stove assembly, paint products, safety gear, electronics goods and many others. The report estimated that 4,200 large corporations have utilized prison labor to produce goods, including:
At Walmart, prisoners perform manufacturing tasks including updating UPC barcodes and erasing the barcodes of returned items so that they can be repriced and resold. Other work includes repackaging returned goods. The company says it uses only voluntary prison labor and pays prisoners prevailing wages.
McDonald’s uses prisoners to process beef for burgers, prepare potatoes to make fries and package a variety of chicken products while also processing bread and milk products. McDonald’s issued a statement in 2020 saying it is against any form of forced or involuntary prison labor.
Compaq, a subsidiary of Hewlett-Packard, uses prisoners to produce computer components.
At Wendy’s, prisoners process beef to prepare burgers. Wendy’s supplier code of conduct says suppliers should only use voluntary prison labor.
Starbucks subcontracts various coffee packaging jobs to Washington State Prison services, mostly during the holiday season to package holiday coffees.
Prisoners work in Sprint call centers and provide customer service and assistance. Sprint says the company is against involuntary or forced prison labor.
Verizon uses white-collar criminals to provide telecommunication services to customers, but the company says none are forced to work.
A 2020 report by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute found that at least 83 companies were directly or indirectly linked to Chinese forced labor camps, including Nintendo Sony and Microsoft.
Avis uses prisoners at call centers and for customer service needs, taking reservations and arranging transportation at airports for clients throughout the U.S.
Globaltel.com also reported that Whole Foods buys artisan cheeses and fishes from companies that employ prisoners. It reported that Target has relied on suppliers that are known to use prison labor. Boeing used prisoners to cut airplane components. Intel has outsourced labor from prisons.
Victoria’s Secret was found to be paying prisoners meager wages to make expensive lingerie.
In 2010, British Petroleum used Louisiana inmates to clean up an oil spill. The prisoners received no pay.
Honda Motor Company hires prisoners from Ohio Mansfield Correctional Institution to make some of its car parts, at very low pay.
JC Penney uses female prisoners to sew leisurewear and more recently, prisoners from Tennessee are making jeans.