The enduring legacy of slavery in North American prison labour

Slavery was officially abolished throughout the British Empire, including Canada, on 1 August 1834[1], by the coming into effect of the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833. Canada had already made baby steps toward abolishing slavery 41 years earlier, in 1793, with the Act to Limit Slavery in Upper Canada, but without freeing a single enslaved person. The 1793 Act passed after enslaver Sergeant Adam Vrooman, violently sold a young, enslaved woman named Chloe Cooley across the Niagara River into New York. Vrooman did this to mitigate potential financial loss if the whispers of abolition and freedom–then circulating in the Niagara region–became reality. Though the incident was witnessed by many who heard Cooley’s screams, only two men reported to incident authorities. It is unknown what happened to the Cooley once she disappeared onto the US side of the river, but charges against Vrooman were ultimately dropped.

Sure, Canada has come a long way from allowing humans to be sold to each other, but not as far as you’d think. Until October 2022, Correctional Service Canada had a contract with Wallace Beef Inc. to run a for-profit abattoir out of its Eastern Ontario Joyceville Institution[2] (prison). The contract provided the labour of incarcerated individuals to the private corporation. Instead of being rehabilitated, they were being punished and paid slave wages. Canadian correctional institutions are supposed to be designed to rehabilitate, not punish convicted individuals. Then there’s the over-representation of Indigenous (32%) and Black (9.2%) peoples within their walls. All this and more should continue to bring programs like CORCAN[3] into question. While that meatpacking contract has since ended, CORCAN – the program that essentially pimps out prison labour to private corporations under the guise of “workplace experience for offenders”[4] – should probably garner more scrutiny than it does.

South of the 49th parallel, slavery in the United States was officially abolished by way of the Emancipation Proclamation enacted in 1863 by then-President Abraham Lincoln, though it wasn’t until 19 June 1865 that the last enslaved Black people in Galveston, Texas were finally made aware of their freedom. Almost immediately, legislators began enacting segregationist policies and laws, and authorities began arresting Black people en masse. One such example, well known in American cultural history, is the story of John Henry. The patriotic account of a “proud Black railroad tunneller” is actually a sanitized story of the very brutal prison labour experience of a 19-year-old Civil War veteran from New Jersey, who was arrested in Virginia – likely based on “a series of laws called the Black Codes, which included a vagrancy law that made it a crime for black people to be without employers”[5] – and incarcerated at Virginia Penitentiary. The penitentiary was in serious debt, so on 25 Nov 1868, Warden Burnham Wardwell “signed a contract allowing inmates to be leased year-round to the C&O Railroad. Convicts would earn [the prison] a rate of 25 cents per day[,] helping improve the penitentiary’s massive debt.”[6] The next day, then 21-year-old John William Henry was sent out to work on the C&O Railroad and likely died not from his heart bursting or exhaustion, but rather silicosis, alongside hundreds of other railroad workers. He disappears from prison records after being sent out to work on the C&O Railroad, indicating that he likely never returned from that work.

The June 2022 ACLU report, Captive Labor: Exploitation of Incarcerated Workers[7], revealed that incarcerated workers in the US annually generate more than $2 billion in goods and provide $9 billion worth of prison maintenance services. Further, the average incarcerated worker is paid between 13 and 52 cents per hour, but many are not paid at all. Remember, in 1868, the C&O Railroad was paying only 25 cents per day per worker: approximately $9.75 when adjusted for inflation. In 2022, the average working prisoner made between $1.04 and $4.16 per day (or roughly between 11% and 43% of the amount from 1868.)

Because incarcerated workers’ wages are so low, families already struggling from the loss of income when a family member is incarcerated must step in to financially support an incarcerated loved one. Families with an incarcerated loved one spend $2.9 billion a year on commissary accounts and phone calls, and more than half of these families are forced to go into debt to afford these costs.[8]

The United States population is roughly 13.6% Black, but that number jumps to 38.4% in the prison population, driven often by nonviolent and drug offences (for things as innocuous as simple possession of cannabis). These same offences are disproportionately charged in low-income and minority neighbourhoods where these already disadvantaged sections of the population are further harmed by the capitalist undertow of American freedom when those cornerstone family members are ripped away and locked up, forced to work for slave wages.

The labour movement mustn’t forget the human beings who are being subjected to an altered version of forced labour. Labour is a collectivist movement that looks out for the vulnerable among us. Sure, one might say that these convicted individuals aren’t vulnerable, but the State has deprived them of their freedom in retribution for whatever they’re convicted of doing. That lack of freedom renders them inherently vulnerable, especially to capitalist whims and to the capitalist model of exploitation.

The capitalist model of exploitation relies on paying as little as possible and extracting the greatest possible profit. Slavery morphed into incarcerated labour for too many and continues to disproportionately plague minority communities today. The focus of corrections should be focused on rehabilitation, not on capitalist extraction.

We can do better. There’s recently been a push to unionize incarcerated workers. Major proponents of this push are Jordan House (assistant professor, Brock University) and Asaf Rashid (lawyer) explained that “prison labourers are exempt from basic health and safety, employment standards and labour laws, and I think we should ask why these legal exclusions exist [and they] argue that there isn’t any good public safety, legal or moral justification to exclude prisoners from normal occupational health and safety regulations.”[9]

Incarcerated humans are no less human than those who are free. They should be treated with dignity and respect, not sold to the highest corporate bidder.











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