Is slavery back in Alabama?
This is an August 18, 1995 file photo picturing inmates working on Alabama's chain gang near Prattville, Ala. The chain gangs might be gone, but important new data show how prisoners remain a source of cheap or even free labor for business and corporations. | AP

BIRMINGHAM, Ala.—Is slavery back in Alabama? Adam Obernauer, organizing director for the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union—one of five organizations, including the AFL-CIO, now suing to stop it—says “yes.”

And, of course, the profit motive is behind all of it: Alabama reaps $450 million annually in fees from private firms. It lets them use forced convict labor at rock-bottom, or even no, pay.

So, the RWDSU, the AFL-CIO, the Union of Southern Service Workers—which the Service Employees backs—plus civic and civil rights organizations, and ten present or formerly incarcerated people, went to federal court to stop the exploitation via a federal class action lawsuit filed on Dec. 12.

“When workers cannot control and sell their labor or wage, then it is slavery––period. Let me be crystal clear: Forced and unpaid labor is never acceptable,” Obernauer told the Amsterdam News during a virtual press conference on the case.

“What’s happening in Alabama is one of the most egregious violations of the rights of Black workers happening today, incarcerated or not,” Obernauer added.

“Alabama’s shameful modern-day slavery scheme is a clear violation of human rights. When labor is owned by others, rather than the workers [who] produce the labor, they’re simply unable to attain rights owed to them in this country.”

The Alabama case, however, is only the tip of a rather large and exploitative iceberg where states and companies profit off of prison labor.

The jobs aren’t like those of the chain gangs of the early 20th century, or even the real slavery of cotton picking, carding, and weaving in the antebellum South. But in many ways, they mimic what Southern aristocrats then called “our peculiar institution.”

Tufts University, which has been outspoken about the evils of exploiting prison labor, reports up to 4,100 companies take advantage of it.

“Prison labor is exceedingly inexpensive (sometimes even free) and thus constitutes an opportunity for companies to cut down on their labor costs and turn a greater profit. According to the Prison Policy Initiative, ‘The average of the minimum daily wages paid to incarcerated workers for non-industry prison jobs is…86 cents,” while “the average maximum daily wage for the same prison jobs… [is] $3.45.’”

“In some states, people who are incarcerated are not paid at all for their labor,” Tufts adds. That describes the situation in Alabama, the suit says.

“For private business, prison labor is like a pot of gold. No strikes. No union organizing. No health benefits, unem­ployment. insurance, or workers’ compensation to pay. No language barriers, as in foreign countries. The appeal of extremely cheap (and in some cases, free) labor incentivizes filling up prisons with more people, i.e. more laborers, in order to further profit.”

It also takes advantage of the enormous rise in the prison population since the 1994 so-called Crime Bill, whose lead sponsor was then-Senate Judiciary Chairman Joe Biden, D-Del. He’s since called it his greatest mistake in 50 years in politics.

With only 5% of the world’s population, the U.S. has 25% of the world’s prisoners. And, as in Alabama, a disproportionate share are Black, picked up for minor offenses or as part of the crime bill’s “war on drugs.”

That’s the case in Alabama, too. The state is 25% Black, but its prison population is 50% Black. And the officials controlling the state Department of Corrections—including right-wing GOP Gov. Kay Ivey, named as a defendant in the suit—are white.

Under the Jim Crow system, formerly enslaved Black Americans and their descendants were conscripted back into forced labor via mass incarceration. This 1937 photo shows convicts toiling under the hot Georgia sun. Although modified, the system lives on in new forms. | AP

The jobs Alabama inmates get shipped to are often dangerous. Lakiera Walker, a former inmate who sent a video message to the virtual press conference, said she worked at a SouthEastern Meats warehouse.

“It was a freezer. We worked from 2 pm to 2 am, 12 hours a day, with no sufficient clothing to accommodate this job. Some days, you were freezing, freezing cold. It was between 30 and 40 degrees inside. And if you didn’t work, you would risk going back to the prison or getting a ‘disciplinary.’”

The suit says the Alabama Department of Corrections denies Black Alabamians parole at twice the rate of their white counterparts “through wrongful detention.” Five years ago, Alabama replaced an evidence-based parole system with an unsystematic and discriminatory one.

Lack of parole means Alabama maintains a cheap—and often unpaid—labor force, which it “leases” out to major firms such as Wendy’s, Kentucky Fried Chicken, McDonald’s, and Budweiser. Ironically, the “leasing” is discriminatory, too, the suit says: White inmates get most of the “jobs.”

The companies that exploit the workers are supposed to pay them the prevailing wage, the Amsterdam News reported. But Alabama takes out fees for transportation to and from work, laundering clothes, and “other incidentals” from inmates’ work-release wages.

“Those fees can total up to 40% of a paycheck, often leaving inmate workers earning only $2.06 an hour,” it adds. Prisoners who refuse to work or encourage others to refuse to work under the exploitation system are punished with longer prison sentences and threatened with physical attacks by prison personnel.

Janel Herold, legal director of Justice Catalyst Law, which is representing the inmates, told the virtual press conference the whole setup is a “highly profitable system of convict leasing,” which Alabama supposedly abolished almost a century ago, in 1928.

“We are not talking here today about a new Jim Crow. We’re talking here about the old Jim Crow.”

The suit says Alabama’s forced convict labor scheme, including the tilt on parole, violates the U.S. and state constitutions, and federal laws, including the Ku Klux Klan Act and the Trafficking Victims Protection Act. The class action suit aims to stop Alabama from prolonging the imprisonment of inmates and force it to grant all eligible paroles, as well as compensate workers who have been exploited.

“Fighting to abolish forced labor is a priority for the AFL-CIO and the American labor movement. And we won’t rest until this corrupt, immoral scheme ends for good,” AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Fred Redmond told the press conference.

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Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.