Close New York's "Legalized Sweatshops” and End Slavery Once and For All

Erica Bryant Associate Director of Writing
May 01, 2023

When children in New York’s classrooms are learning about the historic horrors of chattel slavery in the United States, there is a fair chance that the chairs they sit on were produced by enslaved labor.

Corcraft is the brand name for the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision’s Division of Correctional Industries, which uses the labor of incarcerated people to manufacture products. According to its website, it is New York State’s “preferred source” for classroom furniture.

The 13th Amendment ended slavery in the U.S.—except for people convicted of crimes. Far too many states, including New York, continue to exploit this exception, compelling incarcerated people to work for pennies an hour.

Two bills currently under consideration in the New York Legislature could end this mistreatment and labor theft. The No Slavery in New York Act would amend the state constitution to abolish modern-day slavery, and the Fairness and Opportunity for Incarcerated Workers Act would ensure fair wages for incarcerated people. Vera has signed on in support of both pieces of legislation and has also joined numerous other organizations in supporting the Abolition Amendment, which would prohibit forced labor in the United States in all circumstances.

New York State says its work programs prepare incarcerated people for release through “skill development, work ethic, respect, and responsibility.” But Sean Kyler, Vera’s advocacy and partnerships operations manager, worked for Corcraft in 2000 and recalls that there was nothing uplifting about his job as a sewing machine operator. “To be honest, I was forced, under the constant threat of punishment, to work in a legalized sweatshop where I learned the skill of sewing a straight line—a skill that has never helped me in today’s society post-incarceration,” he said. “However, it did save New York State thousands of dollars, and Corcraft profited from my cheap labor when it sold those uniforms to another agency while only paying me $0.24 an hour to make them.”

People in New York’s prisons manufacture products like uniforms and school furniture. They also do many jobs that keep prisons running, like cleaning, food service, and asbestos and lead paint removal. “My duties consist of keeping up the facility lawns and grounds all year round,” wrote Walter Ball, who is currently incarcerated at Wende Correctional Facility in Erie County, New York. “I pick up garbage, mow, weed whack, trim hedges, shovel snow, and salt. Not only is this work labor-intensive, it also often requires having to work in harsh weather conditions, including humidity, the hot sun, rain, snow, and frigid temperatures. We must awaken at 4:30 a.m., even during the winter months. Yet, my weekly income is $10.33.”

At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, the incarcerated people who bottled and labeled “New York State Clean” hand sanitizer earned wages starting at an appalling $0.16 per hour—and at first, those same people were not even allowed to use the sanitizer themselves (this restriction was eventually lifted after protests). The injustice of incarcerated New Yorkers’ meager wages is compounded by the fact that they are forced to buy necessities like food, clothing, and toiletries at commissary prices that are above market rate.

New York sells its prison work programs as rehabilitation. But in reality, they exploit. Refusal to accept job assignments can result in punishment and loss of privileges, as described by prison advocate Johnny Perez, who used to sew pillow cases, sheets, socks, and underwear while incarcerated. “There were no sick days, there were no off days, there were no bereavement days. In fact, if I decided not to go to work… [I] would be sent to solitary confinement, which is 23 to 24 hours a day locked down with little to no human contact.”

So far, only seven states have abolished slavery, without exception, in their constitutions. In the 2022 midterm elections, people in four states—Alabama, Tennessee, Oregon, and Vermont—voted for amendments to their constitutions that would end slavery. End the Exception estimates that there are at least a dozen active campaigns to rewrite state laws to forbid forced labor for all people.

The exception in the 13th Amendment essentially created a financial incentive to criminalize people and force them to work to make profit for others. Several states exploited this loophole almost immediately after it was passed in 1865, enacting Black Codes which criminalized Black people who could not show proof of employment or were seen “walking on the grass.” The War on Drugs launched in the 1970s further targeted Black communities for criminalization, filling prisons with even more people whose labor could be stolen.

Vera’s recent data tool Louisiana Locked Up shows the clear throughline between chattel slavery in the fields and forced labor in prisons today. Comparing the maps of historical plantations and the state’s largest jails and prisons reveals that today’s incarcerated people, who are disproportionately Black, are forced to work on the same land where enslaved people toiled during the horrors of slavery.

Prison labor should be voluntary and people who work while incarcerated should be paid a fair wage. Researchers estimate that more than $14 billion a year in wages is stolen from incarcerated people across the U.S. Meanwhile, families are forced to step in when their underpaid incarcerated loved ones can’t afford necessities, like soap. And because low-income communities are also some of the people most impacted by mass incarceration, this means that families who already have fewer resources are often further squeezed when trying to support incarcerated loved ones who, in some cases, have to work more than a full day to afford things like toothpaste. (About $1.6 billion is spent at prison commissaries each year.) Many incarcerated people have minor children and families who could use financial support instead.

It’s time for the federal government to close the 13th Amendment loophole and end slavery for the nearly two million people currently incarcerated in the U.S. And in the absence of federal action, states need to pass legislation like the No Slavery in New York Act and the Fairness and Opportunity for Incarcerated Workers Act.

To learn more about efforts to abolish modern day slavery and to support the Abolition Amendment, visit End the Exception. To find out how you can support efforts to end slavery in New York State, visit 13th Forward.

More than 160 years after the Emancipation Proclamation, it is past time to end slavery, without exception—forever.