The 13th amendment of the Constitution is believed, by many, to have ended slavery. But upon closer inspection, the line “except for people convicted of a crime” becomes clear, and so does the fact that involuntary servitude still exists. Criminals in Texas are not paid for the prison labor they are required to participate in. In order for these prisoners to become a part of society upon release, they need to be able to rely on compensation for the work they put in behind bars, because sometimes that is all they have.
Texas is one out of three states in the U.S. that does not pay their inmates for labor. It also happens to have the largest prison population in the country with a workforce that has been valued at nearly $2 billion a year. Yet, the prisoners performing the work — anything from producing mattresses to picking cotton — receive nothing in return. If inmates refuse to work they are left to face repercussions.
“Typically prisoners are required to work, and if they refuse to work, they can be punished by having their sentences lengthened and being placed in solitary confinement,” said Paul Wright, editor of Prison Legal News.
While the prisons provide essential items such as food and clothing, anything out of the ordinary must be bought. Family members or friends of prisoners have the option to deposit money into the accounts set up for criminals held in Texas prisons. This money can be used by inmates to buy items from commissary that are otherwise not provided. But what happens when you have no friends or family to do you this favor? Where will the money come from?
The deplorable conditions inmates have to perform labor in are also a cause for concern. Earlier this year, seven Texas prisons reported inmates refusing to leave their cells in a joined effort to strike against work conditions. Inmates will spend hours on end working under the Texas sun only to return to cells with no air conditioning, all the while being paid zero dollars.
“Slavery has always been a legal institution,” said an activist serving a life sentence at the Holman Correctional Facility, where prisoners rioted for four days, “And it never ended. It still exists today through the criminal justice system.”
Many prisoners who are released are worse off than when they first got to jail. They come out with no money, no transportation, no employment or life skills. But if these inmates had the opportunity to rely on the money they saved up from the endless hours of prison labor they put in, their future would not look so bleak.
Suazo is a communication studies senior from Honduras. Follow her on Twitter @giselle_suazo.