For those that just watched the new documentary 13th, it may be news that slavery was never fully abolished in the United States. Yet, for anyone who has been locked up, who has a family member locked up, or for anyone who’s had any serious, extended interaction with the U.S. prison system, that slavery is still alive and profitable is not news. In Pennsylvania, you may be paid $1.00 a day to cook then charged $3.50 at the commissary for a bag of Cool Ranch Doritos. It’s not just making license plates, it’s building school-desks for elementary school kids, cooking, doing laundry, cutting hair, even doing maintenance for the facility. Indeed, slave labor and de-facto slave labor is such an ingrained part of the private prison industry that the business model would not function without it.
Yet, a recent ruling by a Colorado district judge expands the means of resisting this institution of neo-slavery. In 2014, 9 people claimed the Aurora Detention Center forced them to work “without compensation and under the threat of solitary confinement.” The 9 plaintiffs were or are currently detained at the Denver area ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) facility. The plaintiffs are accusing the prison of violating the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, a historical law passed in 2000, which prohibits obtaining labor “by means of force, threats of force, physical restraint, or threats of physical restraint.” Around 400,000 people find themselves detained in immigration prisons each year. Roughly 60% of the prisons make a business out of detention. Aurora itself is owned by GEO Group, a corporation with upwards of a billion dollars of revenue per year.
The decision by Judge John Kane is at the nexus of the movement to abolish slavery. If we’re paid $2 a day to do someone else’s laundry, then charged the same to call our children, then that prison is our plantation. While the decision by the judge is just a “go ahead” for the lawsuit, the ruling does represent a precedent for upwards of 50,000 prisoners fighting for a living wage. It is also important to note that Judge Kane moved forward on the question of coerced slave labor, but struck down the portion of the suit demanding minimum-wage laws be applied to those imprisoned. The minimum wage in Colorado is $9.30; wages at the prison are as low as $1 a day.
The Aurora decision is a wind to the massive resistance growing against the United States’ draconian and predatory system of mass deportations and imprisonment. When Trump was elected, prison CEO’s throughout the country rejoiced. People detained, waiting for deportation, must be imprisoned somewhere, and there are small towns throughout the country whose prison cells open for business. Take, Raymondville, Texas. As soon as the prison opened in 2003 people both inside and outside the prison recognized its food as inedible, its conditions as unlivable, its consistent stream of sexual assault allegations as unimaginable. Yet, it wasn’t until 2015, after the prisoners took control and burned their cell blocks, that the prison lost its contract with ICE. Now, Raymondville, which is in the midst of a lawsuit of their own against MTC Corporation, sees hope in the mass deportations occurring around the country. In the arrest of family many do not see terror or violence, they see economic opportunity coming back to their deindustrialized town. Indeed, if Raymondville’s prospective new contract is anything like their old one, the town would receive $2.50 per day for each person incarcerated in it’s prison. Perhaps these are the jobs Trump so often spoke of “bringing back” to the United States.
Now, when we identify the conditions of the incarcerated as neo-slavery, GEO group in Colorado says it’s a “volunteer work program.” Then let’s just call a sharecropper a tenant, and a slave a piece of property. Again, the decision coming out of the Colorado district court is nothing but an allowance for part of the case to proceed. But, what the ruling does signal is a building of the toolbox, a stockpiling of precedents, and more momentum for the movement to abolish mass incarceration and its systematic enslavement of the people.
***The Human Rights Coalition (HRC) is a grassroots non-profit of predominantly prisoners’ families, prisoners, ex-offenders, and some supporters. HRC opposes the prison system as a “response” to social problems and advocates dismantling it and building in its place a system of accountability and healing, not punishment.
Christian Science Monitor, “Forced to WOrk? 60,000 Undocumented Immigrants May Sue Detention Center,” March 1, 2017
CIVIC: End Isolation, Immigration Detention Map & Statistics, accessed March 3, 2017
Los Angeles Times, “This industry stands to benefit from Trump’s crackdown on the border,” February 14, 2017
San Antonio Express News, “Willacy county officials mull offers to reopen defunct immigrant detention facility,” March 1, 201y
PDF for Menocal et al vs. GEO Group Inc., accessed March 4, 2007, http://deportationresearchclinic.org/Menocal-Et-Al_v_GEO_Cert-2-27-2017.pdf