Brittany White, 37, was arrested for marijuana trafficking in Alabama in 2009. She went to trial to contest the charges — after all, just a year prior the United States president had admitted, cheekily, that inhaling was “the point.” 

She was sentenced to 20 years. But her sentence was meted out in portions, based on good behavior, and she, posing no discernable public safety risk for selling a plant increasingly legal in states all across the U.S., was allowed to work on the outside.

She got a job at a Burger King.

But the state of Alabama took a significant portion of her paltry minimum wage. “They charged me $25 a week for transportation,” she tells Truthdig. “And they take away 40% of your check. It’s egregious to be making minimum wage, and then to have so much taken away by the state.”

Minimum wage in Alabama is $7.25. 

Still, White considers herself lucky. Even her paltry earnings were better than nothing. She was able to purchase soap from the commissary. The prison-provided soap is full of lye, she says, which you definitely do not want near your private parts.

Many stuck behind bars are forced to work for cents per hour, or for nothing. While corporate culprits are commonly blamed for exploiting the labor of incarcerated people, it’s actually primarily states and the federal government who take advantage, and make the public unwittingly complicit.

Got a car? Your license plate was likely made by inmates. In New York, inmates make the trash cans. High school desks are often made on the inside; so are glasses for Medicare patients. 

Many stuck behind bars are forced to work for cents per hour, or for nothing, for corporations, states and the federal government.

Companies like CorCraft in New York manage labor in the state’s prisons. They’re funded by the state’s budget, and boast they’re New York state’s preferred choice for “office chairs, desks, panel systems, classroom furniture, cleaning, vehicle, and personal care supplies, and more.”

“Summer Sizzles with Classroom Furniture from Corcraft,” their website declares.

They also claim to help in “the department’s overall mission to prepare incarcerated individuals for release through skill development, work ethic, respect and responsibility.”

The people behind the “sizzling” furniture beg to differ.

In the 12 years he was incarcerated in New York state, Dyjuan Tatro was forced to work a variety of jobs, from making desks to license plates. “At the end, I didn’t have a resume,” he tells Truthdig. “I didn’t get one thing to help me be successful on the outside from the prison. No resume, no job experience… Just $40 and a bus ticket — from 12 years of prison labor, I couldn’t use any of it to get a meaningfully paying job.”

Bianca Tylek, the executive director of Worth Rises, an organization devoted to eradicating unjust prison practices, goes further. “It’s slavery,” she tells Truthdig.

The 13th Amendment, which ended slavery, left an important exception: it’s still legal to garnish wages, or more commonly, refuse to pay incarcerated people for forced labor. “As a result, incarcerated people live in slavery-like conditions,” Tylek adds.

Of course, there are nuances. For example, trading community service, like, say, picking up trash, in exchange for not serving time, is one example of a noncarceral approach. But incarceration changes the equation. Tylek notes that it’s not just about the miniscule (or nonexistent) wages. It’s compelling people to work, with the alternative being a stint in solitary and other punishments, like refusing to let them see relatives, consequences that are meted out by guards. She also notes that they have to work in dangerous trades they may not be trained for, including industrial-sized laundries or ovens.

Despite what someone did or did not do, to end up behind bars, coercing them into performing free labor is wrong, Tylek notes. “I like to ask people the question, ‘Under what circumstances is slavery OK?” she tells Truthdig.

“If you can’t answer that question, the answer is, slavery is never OK.”

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