Last month, Colorado voters passed Amendment A, which removed a part of the Colorado constitution which said that slavery and involuntary servitude are acceptable as punishment for a crime. The 13th amendment abolished slavery “except as punishment for a crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.” Texas, Georgia, Alabama and Arkansas do not pay prisoners for their work. In California, 2,500 incarcerated workers fought fires for $1 per hour. Earlier this year, prisoners across 17 states staged the largest prison strike in history, protesting the slave labor they are forced to endure. If you think that America has ridded itself of its original sin, you’re wrong. Slavery is alive and well, we just launder it through our legal and economic system, as this new investigation from The Daily Beast highlights:
A Daily Beast investigation found that in 2018 alone, for-profit immigration detention was a nearly $1 billion industry underwritten by taxpayers and beset by problems that include suicide, minimal oversight, and what immigration advocates say uncomfortably resembles slave labor.
Being in the U.S. illegally is a misdemeanor offense, and immigration detention is technically a civil matter, not a criminal process. But the reality looks much different. The Daily Beast reported last month that as of Oct. 20, ICE was detaining an average of 44,631 people every day, an all-time high. Now ICE has told The Daily Beast that its latest detention numbers are even higher: 44,892 people as of Dec. 8. Its budget request for the current fiscal year anticipates detaining 52,000 people daily.
Expanding the number of immigrants rounded up into jails isn’t just policy; it’s big business. Yesica’s employer and jailer, the private prisons giant GEO Group, expects its earnings to grow to $2.3 billion this year. Like other private prison companies, it made large donations to President Trump’s campaign and inaugural.
The Daily Beast found that ICE paid $807 million to 19 privately owned or operated detention centers in 2018. The National Immigrant Justice Center estimated that 71% of immigrant detainees in November 2017 were held in 33 privately operated prisons.
A private prison means that humans are extracting profit from caging other humans. We like to tell ourselves that America is past its sordid history of slavery, but that is closer to a fairy tale than reality. The fact of the matter is that so long as we base our entire economy around profit at any cost, slavery will be incentivized, since profit is simply revenue minus costs, and labor is always your biggest cost. Therefore, the logical end of capitalist thinking is to reduce costs to zero and revenue to infinity. It’s not a coincidence that capitalism rose in global prominence along with the Transatlantic Slave Trade in the 16th century.
Legalized slavery has been justified through America’s “tough on crime” stance. Private prisons have been around since the 1850s, but they really rose in prominence in the 1980s, when Ronald Reagan dramatically escalated the War on Drugs, which disproportionately targets minority communities. Jim Crow didn’t die when the Civil Rights Act was passed, it simply took on a new form.
America was constructed on the graves of the natives and on the backs of slaves. This unadulterated fact is at the center of all our squabbles. People who don’t want to believe in America’s sordid history and prefer the fairy tale that we have all been sold claim that highlighting our crimes against humanity constitutes a lack of patriotism, and even bringing up the topic of American slavery in 2018 is likely to make you look crazy.
But you’re not crazy, America is. We are a land of contradictions. Our founding document said that every man is free, yet slavery is still legal. This fact has been baked so deeply into our constitutional system that we are still unwinding slavery from it in 2018, as Colorado’s Amendment A proves. This new investigation from The Daily Beast is harrowing, and it’s a perfect example of why the Nazis looked to America as an example of the kind of country that they wanted to create. America was never great, and we have brought just as much human suffering upon the world as any autocratic regime that we claim to despise.
Emily Ruyo, Gould School of Law professor, told The Daily Beast that “there is very little distinction you can draw between slave labor and what they’re doing.” The fact of the matter is that companies like GEO Group exist to profit off of human misery and slave-like conditions for the most vulnerable among us, and your tax dollars subsidize their profits. These private prisons “consistently and substantially” hold immigrants longer than public ones do, about two and a half times longer. George Zoley, GEO Group’s CEO, makes $9.3 million per year off of intentionally prolonging human suffering in slave-like conditions, all in the name of taxpayer-subsidized profit. Slavery didn’t go away with the 13th amendment, it simply repackaged itself as something more palatable to our capitalist economic system in the hopes that we won’t notice. Looking at GEO Group’s profits, it’s clear that slavery is still a big business in 2018 America.
Jacob Weindling is a staff writer for Paste politics. Follow him on Twitter at @Jakeweindling.