Penal labor has been a part of American history since 1865, when it was legalized as part of the 13th Amendment. Article 1 of the Amendment states: “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.”
While some like to dispute this fact, penal labor is a legalized form of slavery. Construction work, manufacturing license plates and fighting wildfires are all are allowed under this amendment if you are convicted of a crime.
Many do not know that immigrant detainees are also subject to penal labor. In 1950, the government created the Voluntary Work Program. This program pays immigrant detainees $1 a day to clean, cook and perform maintenance. In some prisons, detainees outnumber the staff and perform many staff duties themselves. They do cafeteria work, clean stalls, manage the commissary, do laundry, etc.
If $1 a day sounds incredibly low, that’s because it is. According to In These Times, the government has not adjusted these wages since the 1950s. If adjusted for 2018, detainees would make $10.40 a day.
Detainees are treated inhumanely while working, and are punished if they don’t work, despite what officials of these camps say. Former ICE detainee Martha Gonzalez was sent to three different detention centers. At two of the facilities she was threatened with solitary confinement, verbally assaulted and was denied basic human necessities such as sanitary napkins, toilet paper and toothpaste.
Other immigrants have had similar experiences inside their detention centers. Shoiab Ahmed was placed in isolation for 10 days after persuading other detainees to protest their working conditions. In addition to the isolation he faced, they also limited his shower privileges to 3 times a week.
If these conditions weren’t bad enough, it actually gets worse. Many detainees work more than eight hours a day, and receive little or no payment for their work. A 2014 lawsuit against filed against the GEO group alleged that the plaintiffs were sometimes forced to work without pay. Working without payment can be detrimental to a detainee’s health. If you don’t have money you can’t buy soap, toilet paper or toothpaste from the commissary. If you complain about lost wages, you are swiftly punished. Sometimes their commissary privileges are suspended or get sent to solitary confinement. They also send detainees to the more violent open dormitories.
These places are nicknamed “El Gallinero,” or the “chicken coop” in Spanish.
This is slave labor, plain and simple. Just like slavery, there’s always a master who exploits the slave for personal or financial gain. This is where the private prison industry comes into play. CoreCivic and GEO Group run 34 detention centers that use the voluntary work program. CoreCivic gets 25 percent of its $1.77 billion profit from their ICE contracts. GEO Group gets 24 percent of their $2.26 billion profit from ICE also. But wait, it gets worse.
CoreCivic and GEO Group invest in politicians that help with their business. In 2016, GEO Group donated donated $50,000 to Rebuilding America Now, a pro-Trump super PAC. Obviously Trump has been very helpful for the private prison industry, and continues to shower them with detention center contracts.
CoreCivic spent $295,642 during the 2016 election, most of it for anti-immigration candidates. Both corporations have spent millions of dollars on lobbying for more immigrant detention centers. Both corporations spent more than $20,000 to various Republican legislators, who then tried to defend GEO Group from a labor trafficking lawsuit.
If this sounds a lot like political corruption in the form of forced slave labor for profit and violation of federal law, that’s because it is. Many of these of detainees aren’t technically criminals. The violation of immigration laws is only a civil infraction and legalized penal labor is only for convicted criminals.
Many of these detainees have not even been to court yet.
We have these people working below minimum wage, as a punishment for crimes they haven’t even been convicted of. To add insult to injury, the Voluntary Work Program saves private prisons millions of dollars.
In 2014, private prisons and the government saved $40 million by using immigrant labor instead of hiring new staff members, paying them minimum wage.
I find it ironic that we are a country who prides themselves on freedom and liberty, but we have slave labor prison camps across the U.S. This shows the complete disconnect between what the government says and what is fact. The consistent violation of human rights which these people have to live through is appalling. Yet nothing is really being done about the issue at the federal level.
Human rights groups and advocacy groups try their best to help out, but it is becoming a losing battle. The media continues to focus on the separation of children, but ignores the other atrocious acts being committed at these detention centers.
We cannot have freedom and slavery in the same country, yet claim that we have equality for all. In the words of Malcolm X, “It’s liberty or it’s death. It’s freedom for everybody or freedom for nobody.”