by Noel Ignatiev
“Thirteenth-Amendment” marches are planned for August 19th in various cities. They are sponsored by a list of notable figures; it would not surprise me to see Bernie Sanders’ or Elizabeth Warren’s name among them. Their goal is a Constitutional Amendment to abrogate the “exception clause” in the 13th Amendment that allows slavery to be applied to persons convicted of crimes. The demand is that prisoners be compensated for their labor, either by wages or reduced time.
I support the immediate, unconditional abolition of prison: “preach deliverance to the captives” (Luke 4:18, quoting Isaiah 61:1). While there are certain similarities between slavery and the prison—both are involuntary—to equate them is a mistake: The purpose of slavery (and the convict lease system) was to make profits from the labor of people compelled to work; slaves produced commodities of global importance; most prison labor today is devoted to reproducing the prison and supplying government offices, bypassing the market. With few exceptions, prisons—even private ones—make their profit not from the labor of the inmates but by housing and feeding them (often under miserable conditions made even worse by the drive to reduce costs). In addition, towns where prisons are located get grants from the state; those grants do not depend on the labor of the prisoners. The purpose of prison is not to reap profits from people’s labor but to warehouse those for whom no profit-making work exists.
Prison is the characteristic institution of the post-industrial society.
Ironically, many of those who are most vocal in insisting on the similarities between slavery and the prison system do not call for abolishing prisons. They settle instead for demanding that prisoners’ wages be increased and their conditions bettered. It is as if before the Civil War the abolitionists, instead of fighting to end slavery, had demanded improvement in the conditions of the slaves. (Believe it or not, there were such: they focused their demands on ending the breaking-up of slave families and the denial of literacy to slaves. Who remembers their names?)
It is the reversal of Marx’s famous dictum, “Instead of the conservative motto, ‘A fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work!’ they ought to inscribe on their banner the revolutionary watchword, ‘Abolition of the wages system!’”