Twenty-five cents away from slavery

A biweekly column in which various contributors from both sides of prison walls explore common ground for effecting change.

For a prisoner in the Minnesota Department of Corrections (DOC), a 15-minute phone call can require three hours of labor. Mailing a letter — two hours of labor. A sweatshirt to keep warm in winter — 60 hours of labor.

Minnesota DOC policy requires inmates to provide the DOC with labor. If a prisoner refuses a work assignment, he is subject to cell confinement for 22 hours over a span of several months, or until he accepts his next work assignment.

Although this is a form of forced labor, the DOC graciously compensates prisoners at the rate of 25 cents an hour for their time and labor when they start a work assignment. Minnesota actually has one of the highest rates of compensation for prisoner labor.

Convicts leased to harvest timber in Florida circa 1915 (Wikipedia)

Many other states force prisoners to provide labor without any compensation. Some may be surprised to learn that the foundational document of American values, heritage, freedom and equality — the U.S. Constitution — actually endorses such slavery.

Many people were taught (and some are unfortunately still teaching) that the Thirteenth Amendment of the Constitution abolished slavery. The American Heritage Dictionary defines “abolish” as to destroy completely. Section one of the Thirteenth Amendment reads: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for a crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist in the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” (emphases added)

It’s important to understand the historical roots of the U.S. modern-day practice of slavery. After the Thirteenth Amendment was passed and the Reconstruction period began, many states enacted Black Codes. These laws legalized the criminalization of skin color. The Black Codes were enforced on African Americans for the sole purpose of using so-called “crimes” such as loitering as justification to re-enslave them.

The Black Codes evolved into the Jim Crow laws, which continued to criminalize race, separate African Americans from economic opportunity and political power, and force them into an underclass. Jim Crow laws then evolved into “The New Jim Crow,” a term penned by author Michelle Alexander.

Alexander’s book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, documents how the war on drugs deliberately targeted African Americans, turning them into second-class citizens through criminal records that limit opportunities to vote, pursue a career, acquire housing and attend college.

So here we are today, after Labor Day, a holiday to celebrate those who fought to improve labor rights and conditions, and following the events that took place at a White Nationalist rally in Charlottesville, VA. The rally prompted a nationwide debate over public monuments designed to honor American citizens who committed and/or aided and abetted acts of treason and crimes against humanity, such as torture, rape and murder.

Thousands marched and protested in several cities to speak against the racist elements in American society. During this time following Labor Day and Charlottesville, there is something else society ought to consider.

The foundation of our country, the U.S. Constitution, has a massive fissure running through it. It’s as wide as the Grand Canyon and as destructive as the San Andreas Fault. The Thirteenth Amendment, which gives constitutional authority to enslave Americans, is incongruent with all the other ideals expressed throughout the Constitution.

We would do well to ask ourselves, “Where is our time and energy best spent? Protesting historical symbols and demanding their removal? Or protesting current actionable laws that legalize slavery, and demanding our U.S. senators and representatives draft and submit a constitutional amendment to once and for all destroy American slavery completely?


Jeffery Young is a participant in Voices for Racial Justice’s “Bridging the Gap” partnership. Reader responses are welcome to To learn more about the organization’s work, visit