New Slaves?

by Benjamin Studebaker

Apparently Kanye West has a new song called “New Slaves”, and in this song West raps the following lines:

See they’ll confuse us with some bullshit
Like the New World Order
Meanwhile the DEA
Teamed up with the CCA
They tryna lock niggas up
They tryna make new slaves
See that’s that privately owned prisons
Get your piece today

West appears to deliberately draw a distinction between the claim he’s making regarding the American prison system and the kind of zany conspiracy theories that run around the internet–New World Order, Lizard People, Illuminati, and the like.  Is West saying something relevant here, or is he off his rocker? Let’s take a look.

The DEA is the Drug Enforcement Administration, an American governmental agency that enforces drug laws. The CCA is more obscure; it’s the Corrections Corporation of America, a private company which operates 60 American prisons with a designed capacity of around 90,000 inmates. It should be noted that this is a fairly small portion of the total US prison population, which contains 2.2 million incarcerated people and a further 4.8 million on probation or parole. Why does West highlight the CCA?

There is one specific issue that draws attention in its direction. Last year the CCA offered to buy more prisons from the government in exchange for a 20-year management contract and a guaranteed occupancy rate of 90%. Why does the CCA want to keep its prisons full? As it turns out, the primary way that the CCA makes money is by employing prisoners as laborers at very low wages–the minimum wage for prisoners is 23 cents per hour, the maximum is $1.15. For comparison, the federal minimum wage for ordinary employees is $7.25 per hour, and it is often argued that this wage is not high enough for people to live comfortably off of. Since the CCA needs prison labor to stay profitable, it needs a large prison population.

Now, it might be reasonable to wonder how it came to be that prisoners could be paid wages below the minimum. You can thank Abraham Lincoln’s famed 13th amendment (yes, the amendment recently praised in the film Lincolnto the US constitution for that. Here’s the line:

Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.

This means that, in the United States, it is perfectly constitutional to enslave prisoners and pay them nothing, let alone 23 cents. Many prisons compel prisoners to work, both private and publicly run, for pittances.

This sets up a perversity of incentive–when it costs society money to imprison someone, the government has an incentive to ensure people do not become criminals and are instead productive members of society. In this situation, society profits from higher rates of incarceration, encouraging prison operators to imprison as many people as they can possibly get away with. In addition, whole cottage industries grow up around these prisons–companies that make prison food, companies that make prison clothes, and all of these businesses have a shared interest in the expansion of the prison population, an interest which they back up with lobbying. The United States has a long cultural history of looking down on prisoners as immoral scumbags who deserve whatever they get and probably much more, so the prison lobby is historically stronger than the “be nice to prisoners” lobby. The aggregate effect is a government that desires to expand the prison population.

West suggests that the most convenient way to expand the prison population is the drug war–maintaining stiff penalties for the selling or use of the various illicit drugs. Seen through this lens, much of the “tough on crime” or “three strikes” policies adopted in many US states in the 80’s and 90’s under the pretext of being crime-reducing could instead be viewed as attempts to further maximize the prison population. Insofar as the people incarcerated in the United States are disproportionately black, West makes the further accusation that the policy is racially motivated, that it is, to some degree, an attempt to resurrect slavery.

I wouldn’t go so far as that–it is undoubtedly true, however, that drug policy in the United States is ineffectual at reducing drug use in comparison with the policy in places like say, Portugal, in which decriminalization has been coupled with expanded health and social policies to reduce social disutilities caused by drug use. While the lobbying dollars of the prison-industrial complex no doubt play a role in perpetuating current drug laws, public ignorance of the potential efficacy of alternatives is probably the predominant factor–there are still lots of people who, given a referendum, will vote to keep drug use criminal.

What about the 13th amendment? Is it morally permissible to compel prisoners to work in the first place? It is undoubtedly the case that to have capable workers but nonetheless choose not to employ them represents a significant social cost. However, if the organization, be it the state or a private company, that does the imprisoning in the primary beneficiary of the labor, perversity of incentive arises. In addition, prisoners, despite their imprisoned status, remain citizens, and their well-being is as important as is the well-being of any other citizen–they deserve equal consideration. How do we show prisoners equal consideration and avoid perversity of incentive without unnecessarily wasting the economic potential of the prison population?

I propose that we make prison labor voluntary and then set wages at whatever level encourages widespread participation–in other words, instead of forced labor, we adopt a labor market within the prison system. Prisoners should be able to earn significant incomes which they would then be permitted to spend on improving their own living conditions within the prison, or send out to friends, families, and other dependents. In this way, we could avoid the scenario of the family that becomes impoverished because the member of the household with the highest income has become imprisoned. Reducing poverty and reducing criminality go hand in hand. I would also bar the prison operator from keeping any of the money raised by prison labor. If the market wage for prisoners leaves some money left over, the prison operator should reinvest that money back into the prison, improving living conditions for the prisoners. In this way, prisons could become economically self-sustaining rehabilitation communities.

This would probably make prisons considerably more pleasant places in which to live, and some might worry that this would reduce prison’s effectiveness as a deterrent to criminal behavior. However, similar policies have been attempted elsewhere, particularly in the Nordic countries, and prisons of this type have been unusually successful in reducing reoffending. If we make putting people in prison financially costly to the state, such a result will once again become desirable rather than unprofitable. To the extent that Kanye West pushes us in that direction, he’s doing us a favor.