Juneteenth Is Incomplete While Slavery Persists in Prisons

Erica Bryant Associate Director of Writing
Jun 15, 2023
End the Exception: Celebrating Juneteenth Feels Incomplete While Slavery Persists in Prisons
Sean Kyler, Vera’s Advocacy and Partnerships operations manager, endured forced labor while incarcerated. This is due to a loophole in the 13th Amendment, which outlaws slavery except as a punishment for crime. This exception has created an incentive to criminalize people and steal their labor. Hear his story.
02:22 min

As we celebrate Juneteenth, a federal holiday that commemorates the emancipation of most enslaved people in the United States, it’s important to remember that slavery is still legal in the United States—for people in prison. Nearly two million people have no protection from legal slavery because of a provision in the 13th Amendment, which outlawed slavery except for as a punishment for crime. This exception has created an incentive to criminalize people and steal their labor.

Vera’s Advocacy and Partnerships Operations Manager Sean Kyler endured forced labor while incarcerated at Clinton Correctional Facility in upstate New York. Kyler is eager to share his experience and to advocate for a true end to legal slavery.

How does Juneteenth feel to you, as a person who has experienced modern-day slavery in prison?

The short answer is: incomplete. We are approaching the third national celebration of Juneteenth; however, the news has not reached the men and women locked away in our jails and prisons because the exception clause contained in the 13th Amendment continues to allow slavery to exist in the United States and its territories. It is time for Congress to end slavery for all, no exceptions.

Please describe your experience working for Corcraft, which is the “brand name” for the Division of Correctional Industries of the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision.

I worked for Corcraft in its tailor shop in Clinton Correctional Facility, sewing officer uniforms from December 1999 to July 2001. During that period, I started out as a single needle sewer and advanced to [using] a serger [machine] after a period of time. I worked the p.m./eve module, which meant I worked Monday through Friday from 4 p.m. to 10 p.m. Initially, I started sewing zippers for correction officers’ pants, but oftentimes I would sew items for other types of uniforms. I would never see the patch[es] that went on the uniforms I had sewn, but I knew when I was working on a product that was not for the Department of Corrections (as it was called back then).

If I had to describe the environment, it would look like those pictures of a sweatshop. I was assigned a seat in the next to last row beside the concrete pillar holding up the building. I was given bundles of material to sew every day with a quota. Failure to meet this quota could result in disciplinary action and removal from industry for failure to work.

In this conveyer belt working environment, the civilian staff and the correctional officers wielded enormous power over my life. For example, I was told immediately to limit the amount of socializing or bathroom “runs” I participated in. There were times when my neighbor and I would be warned for talking to each other even though we had completed our work. I was labeled as too talkative and threatened with a misbehavior report several times. They did not want me getting up and walking around. The motto was: come in, sit down, be quiet, work, and get up only to go the bathroom (just not too many times).

I have witnessed sick people forced to work because they could not make it to sick call to get placed on bed rest and they did not want to get issued a misbehavior report for failing to work. Conversely, I have seen the escorting correction officer tell someone not to come to work because they looked really, really sick. Moreover, I have witnessed civilian and correctional staff conspire to remove people they did not like from the program because said person questioned something that was happening. I remember they were slowly diminishing our break time from 15 minutes to five minutes because we were not producing at a fast enough pace. One individual decided he was going to take his allotted time and they retaliated against him to get him removed using a fictitious misbehavior report based on an interaction with the civilian staff person. This was a normal removal tactic.

As you read this, you may wonder why I stayed so long if it was so bad. I had to keep my head down and shut up in order to get daily access to a shower or the law library and not have to go outside in the cold winter days in Dannemora, New York, which is about 16 miles from the Canadian border. Winters—September to June—in Dannemora are brutal and summer only lasts for about two months. Showers are only twice a week and law library access can be minimal during the evening module. Finally, I was on the waiting list for a law library position during my time working for Corcraft. When that position became available in July 2001, I immediately left Corcraft.

What were the consequences of declining to work while incarcerated?

During my incarceration period, from 1997 to 2019 in New York State, the audacity to refuse to work automatically triggered threats of immediate and long-term punishment. A mere pregnant pause that could be perceived by program committee staff as contemplation of refusing would be met with a warning that refusing will lead to a misbehavior report and possibly loss of good time. In essence, this meant an automatic guilty disposition, with sanctions ranging from a term of confinement, also known as keeplock—being kept in one’s cell for 23 hours a day with only one hour of recreation for up to 30 days—to being placed on limited privilege status, which allowed for out-of-cell time only for programs (school, vocational), callouts (the law library, general library, hospital, etc.), and one hour of recreation per day. Notably, in limited-privilege status, a person would only be able to buy cosmetics and stamps from commissary, have limited phone time to maintain family ties, and be permitted one-hour visits with family and friends. Long term, a refusal could affect an individual’s chances of release on parole.

How much were you paid? How did the wages compare to the cost of necessities from commissary? Or how many hours would you have to work to afford simple necessities?

Over the course of working in Corcraft, I was paid from $0.1583 to $0.42 per hour to work in its tailor shop. At the time I worked in industry, staple items like rice, beans, chicken, and fish were relatively cheap, and 12 of us would pool our money together to spread the cost of grocery shopping to maximize our pay. At the time, one hour worth of work could pay for one can of beans, which cost about $0.39 a can. Today, however, the prices have quadrupled on some items and doubled on others. Yet, wages have been stagnant since the early 1990s. In Attica Correctional Facility, creamy peanut butter increased in price from $1.40 to $2.40, or 71 percent, between December 2021 and November 2022. For many incarcerated people, that is almost half their bi-weekly pay.

Why do you think slavery persists in the United States, 160 years after the Emancipation Proclamation?

The simple answer is that our Constitution, specifically the 13th Amendment, contains an exception clause that legalizes slavery and involuntary servitude as punishment for a crime. The more controversial answer is that modern-day slavery is still profitable to federal, state, and local governments as well as to private corporations. In New York State, between 2010 and 2021, Corcraft sold over $545 million worth of goods and services (desks, chairs, office furniture, etc.) while paying pennies on the dollar to incarcerated laborers. Moreover, communities that saw economic declines with the outsourcing of manufacturing jobs saw an economic boon with the arrival of prisons. These communities were able to save hundreds of thousands of dollars using incarcerated people to clean highways and streets, to clear snow in the winter from roadways, and to perform landscaping work for slave wages. In short, the prison industrial complex is profitable just as slavery was profitable. And the threat of removing those profits and raising taxes disincentives change.

How can people help end slavery in New York and beyond?

To learn more, people can visit 13thforward.com. To join our efforts to end slavery in New York, people can contact their local legislators to share support for the No Slavery in NY Act (S.225/A.03412) and the Fairness and Opportunity for Incarcerated Workers Act.

To learn more about the national effort to amend the U.S. Constitution to remove the insidious exception clause in the 13th Amendment, visit the End The Exception website. From there, you can email your congressmembers to let them know that slavery is still legal, and Congress must finish the job to end it, once and for all.