Should companies provide a ‘Made In an American Prison’ label if the product is made in an American jail? Over the last few decades there has been a huge surge of products made in prison factories by inmates. These products—which range from clothes to military equipment and everything in between—are made extremely cheaply because the workers are often paid pennies, if at all. Is this the continuation of slavery? Renowned playwright Liza Jessie Peterson thinks so, and she talks to us about how today’s privatized prison labor problem is a huge human rights problem happening right here on American soil.
Liza's new book is All Day: A Year of Love and Survival Teaching Incarcerated Kids at Rikers Island.
Liza Jessie Peterson: Why should people be concerned with the issue of mass incarceration? People should be concerned with the issue of mass incarceration because it is a human rights crisis that is happening right in front of our face, and it's being cloaked with crime and punishment.
So “These people are bad people, they've committed a crime so we can ignore them, we can lock them up, we can throw them away and we can basically ignore a large swath of our population because they've been criminalized as bad people. They're disposable.”
Human beings are not disposable. We have value. We have traumas, we have hearts, we have families, we have the communities so we're not disposable, no matter what we've done we're not disposable.
Well, so you have prisons that are privatized but in addition to private prisons even state run prisons you have corporations who are profiting from people's incarceration. So what does that mean?
Ok. The 13th amendment in the Constitution, in the United States Constitution, it says that slavery is illegal. So we can't have slavery anymore, except for punishment of a crime. So everybody get your constitution out, look up the 13th amendment and you see the clause that says “except for punishment of a crime.” So if you are convicted of a crime then you're exempt from that 13th amendment saying that slavery is abolished. So that means that you're allowed to work as a slave, slave labor, slave wages.
So you have people working for ten cents an hour, 11 cents an hour who are doing agriculture, working for huge corporations. I don't want to name them because there's so many, but a lot of the goods and services that we take for granted, clothing lines, computer parts, airplane parts, military equipment, food that we buy organically grown, these things are being manufactured in prisons, in prison farms, in prison factories by inmates.
So, y'know, we talk about “buy American,” yeah—okay I have this line in my play The Peculiar Patriot and it says “made in China, made in prison is now the new China” because China, people were outraged about the slave labor and all these sweat shops in Taiwan, in China, all these unfair labor practice is overseas. Well, it's happening right here in America, being “made in prison”. So you have corporations, companies, who are profiting off of people incarcerated.
So there is an incentive for hyper criminalization of a population to keep capitalism running on a well-oiled machine of slave labor, which is the foundation for this country. Let's not forget that the fabric, the very fabric of this country is rooted in slavery, slave labor for hundreds of years. So there is huge capital that was amassed, systems and industries that were created from slave labor so how does this system continue to operate? Well, it just kind of shifted and now we have mass incarceration, we have people who are literally working for five cents, seven cents, ten cents an hour. No labor unions, no workers comp, you know what I mean? So it's a corporation's wet dream.
And I think that if we were to examine the slave industry, because that's what this country was built on we can't ignore that it did not come out that this country was not born out of slavery, the industry of slavery, and you have people say, “Oh my God how do we have slaves for 400 years and just the violence and the atrocities and the trauma and it was just oh that was so horrible!” Right?
Okay. So that happened. But there were people who said, “No this isn't right this is not how human beings are supposed to be treated and human beings shouldn't live this way.” So if we had abolitionists who fought against the system of slavery, chattel slavery, I think that the issue that was just as important during the was it the 19th century, I think it's just as important now that we are faced with the same human rights issue of the day.
Now mind you, now, remember during slavery you had people who thought “Oh well, this is just the way things are” and they went to cotillions and they went to parties and they went to little business as usual and people just kind of ignored the stench of the plantation and what was happening to other human beings.
And you had some people who are like, “Hmm, this is not right. This is not right.” And the people who said “this is not right,” they were a small section of society, and that voice got louder and bigger and stronger. So I think that we're at the precipice of another great shift in society were you have a small group of people who say this prison industrial complex is a human rights crisis. Something needs to be done.
You have a large swath of people saying “Oh they're just criminals we have to have prisons, right?” But I have faith in that small voice of people who believe in humanity, of people who believe in a world without prison becoming louder and louder and louder just like the abolitionists did it back in the day.