What do you think of when you hear the word “prisoner?” Does our current understanding of “criminal” need reforming? Is state-imposed labor a form of human trafficking? Tori Curbelo, Manager of Education, Training & Advocacy at LifeWay Network and Allison Duncil of the Make Manhattan Fair campaign asked the audience to consider these questions and more during the July 30 virtual screening and discussion of the documentary 13th for #WorldDayagainstTraffickinginPersons. The event explored the link between human trafficking, prison labor and criminal justice, and raised awareness of how Fair Trade provides an avenue for consumers to purchase ethically-sourced products.
What is the 13th film about?
The film explores the “intersection of race, justice, and mass incarceration in the United States.” Its title refers to the Thirteenth Amendment to the US Constitution, adopted in 1865, which abolished slavery throughout the United States and ended involuntary servitude except as a punishment when “duly convicted” for a crime.
How is 13th linked to human trafficking?
Human trafficking comes in many forms. The film explores the concept of “State Imposed Trafficking.” Not all trafficking is conducted by a pimp, a business, or an intimate partner. Of the 40.3 million victims of modern day slavery, it is estimated by the International Labour Organization (ILO) that about 10% are involved in state-imposed trafficking, this is trafficking facilitated by a state or militia group. Examples of state-imposed trafficking include children used in armed conflict (“child soldiers”) and prisoners forced to work against their will, sometimes without pay.
In the United States, prison labor can be divided into three categories1:
- Institutional prison labor: These are very low wage jobs that support the operation of the prison or detention facility (cooking, cleaning, laundry, landscaping, etc).
- Working for State or Federal Government Correctional Industry: Government-run businesses and corporations operating in state and federal correctional facilities use incarcerated individuals as free or cheap labor to make license plates, signs, uniforms,apparel, etc–goods sold mostly to government agencies and non-profits within the state.
- Prisoners working for private companies: Contrary to widespread belief, this is less common. Through the Prison Industry Enhancement Certification Program (PIECP), companies can contract with state governments for labor.
All of this work is legal in the United States because the 13th amendment did not outlaw slavery for prisoners. While not all types of prison labor are considered to be cases of human trafficking, the nature of state-imposed labor can vary among states, employers, prison settings, etc. According to the ILO, state-imposed trafficking is when “prisoners are forced to work against their will.” There are currently eight states in the United States that don’t require any payment to prisoners: Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Florida, Mississippi, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Texas.2 In some of these states, prisoners are obligated to work to avoid “disciplinary confinement.” Working without payment and/or to avoid punishment is coercive. Proponents of prison labor argue that this is an appropriate “punishment” for their crimes.
13th asserts that since slavery was outlawed, incarceration has largely been shaped by political and corporate interests, such as a desire for cheap labor, rather than justice. The film illustrates how African Americans have historically and intentionally been portrayed as criminals through films, such as Birth of a Nation, on television and in the news. These racist portrayals perpetuate the narrative that black men are inherently violent, more likely to commit crimes, and generally culpable. Consider that black men account for only 6.5% of the US population, but 40.2% of the US prison population.
We need to reevaluate how the current criminal justice system intersects with human trafficking, an issue we all care about. LifeWay Network survivors have attested to being subjected to racial discrimination and cruelty from the criminal justice system. They report being treated as perpetrators rather than victims.
We can take action on a personal level by ensuring the products we buy are removed from exploitative labor. LifeWay partnered with the Make Manhattan Fair Campaign to discuss the value of Fair Trade certified commodities. Leigh Wallace, of Make Manhattan Fair, explained that products with the Fair Trade label are created without prison labor or forced labor, and the companies adhere to rigorous environmental and social standards. The Make Manhattan Fair Campaign amplifies consumer level change by ensuring that retailers are providing Fair Trade products, holding educational events, and advocating for legislation.
Some questions explored and raised during the virtual film screening:
- What is Fair Trade? According to Fair Trade USA, When you see a product with the Fair Trade Certified seal, you can be sure it was made according to rigorous social, environmental, and economic standards. They work closely with producers to certify transactions between companies and their suppliers to ensure that the people making Fair Trade Certified goods work in safe conditions, protect the environment, build sustainable livelihoods, and earn additional money to empower and uplift their communities.
- Do Fair Trade products certify that no slave labor was used? Yes, fair and safe labor practices are core to Fair Trade principles. Through audits, Fair Trade certifiers look for signs of trafficking and work with producers to ensure to eliminate trafficking, child labor, and other harmful labor practices.
- How can we find out whether companies use prison labor? As mentioned during the event, many companies have used prison labor somewhere in their supply chains. Many companies have made important steps to ensure prison labor is eradicated from their supply chains. There are lists available online, but do your due diligence before calling out a company that may have made changes in recent months to source responsibly.
How can we take action after the film?
- Host a screening of 13th: Continue the discussion with your networks. Awareness of the topic of criminal justice is critical! There are helpful resources such as this discussion guide: Invite LifeWay to be a speaker at your screening by filling out the speaker engagement form.
- Make Manhattan Fair: Join the Make Manhattan Fair Campaign! https://fairtradecampaigns.org/campaign/fair-trade-manhattan/
- How much would your phone call cost? Prisoners pay for quite a bit while they are in jail, including phoning loved ones. How much would it cost you to speak to a loved one behind bars? Read this article, and enter your county to see how much your phone call would cost.
- Human Trafficking and Prison Labor, Polaris Project, https://polarisproject.org/blog/2020/07/human-trafficking-and-prison-labor/
- ‘Prison Slavery’: Inmates Are Paid Cents While Manufacturing Products Sold to Government https://www.newsweek.com/prison-slavery-who-benefits-cheap-inmate-labor-1093729#:~:text=Some%20prisoners%20in%20eight%20states,labor%20in%20government%2Drun%20facilities