Article 13 U.S. Constitution:

Section 1. Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.

Is there any crime that can cause slavery or involuntary servitude in the US?
Are prisoners considered as slaves?

  • 6
    Isn't this just a legal question?
    – user10303
    Commented Feb 23, 2017 at 13:53
  • 2
    @DoritoStyle Both perspective: de facto and legal
    – user 1
    Commented Feb 23, 2017 at 17:13
  • The crime exception refers to 'involuntary servitude', not 'slavery'.
    – JimmyJames
    Commented Feb 23, 2017 at 18:25
  • 4
    Tangentially related on Law: law.stackexchange.com/questions/5557/… Unfortunately, this basically boils down to how you define "slavery".
    – Will
    Commented Feb 23, 2017 at 21:03

4 Answers 4


Are prisoners considered as slaves?

Prisoners are held in prison due to their breaches of laws, prisoners remain in prison for specific terms, prisoners cannot be traded, prisoners have rights (including to safety and to not be overworked), the offspring of prisoners (even if they are born when their parents are at prison) are not prisoners.

No. Prisoners are not considered as slaves.

Is there any crime that can cause slavery or involuntary servitude in the US?

More than a specific crime, some forms of punishment have been criticized as equivalent to slavery / involuntary servitude; both of them appear to be seldom used nowadays.

  • Chain gangs, where prisoner would do hard labour for the state.

  • Convict Lease consisted in the state "lending" prisoner to do work at private operations; it was used during the Reconstruction (Post Civil War) period.

  • There have been protest about convict hired labour, because in some jurisdictions prisoner work is mandatory, and because of the low salaries they receive for their work.

  • 38
    I wouldn't answer this with a clear "no". Being forced to work for free or for a few cents an hour while not being protected by labor laws meets many definitions of slavery. Until the 30s, prisoners were also - as direct result of the end of chattel slavery - leased out, which fits a stricter definition of slavery. I agree though that the prison system is not chattel slavery, and that it is important to note the difference given the US history with slavery.
    – tim
    Commented Feb 23, 2017 at 10:06
  • 1
    @tim I did mention the fact that they may be forced to work; and I agree that convict lease was a borderline practice. But slavery included also things like having no recourse against demeaning treatment, abusive punishments (including death if the owner wished to) and physical abuse (including sexual assault) at the hands of their owner. Those points are relevant to the distinction with slavery, too.
    – SJuan76
    Commented Feb 23, 2017 at 15:06
  • 18
    @SJuan76 Most prisoners have de facto little recourse against demeaning treatment or physical abuse, and no recourse against abusive punishment like solitary confinement. Many are forced to work, receive little to no pay, are not protected by labor laws, and cannot form unions. I still agree that there is a big difference to chattel slavery as it existed in the US, but to simply say no to such a complex topic seems reductive, given the legal and practical aspects.
    – tim
    Commented Feb 23, 2017 at 15:30
  • 1
    newyorker.com/news/news-desk/… seems to say there are billions of dollars at stake which if true would make 'seldom used' suspect.
    – user9389
    Commented Feb 23, 2017 at 20:15
  • @notstoreboughtdirt I think "both of them" refers to chain gangs and convict lease, not forced labor. But I agree, it should be clarified, because forced labor is certainly not seldomly used.
    – tim
    Commented Feb 23, 2017 at 21:27

In the United States currently any crime can and will turn a person into a slave if they are sent into confinement. Virtually every large prison and halfway house in the country has "work" programs that constitute slavery. In many cases prisoners are not paid at all, other times they are paid some trivial amount like 5 cents per hour. Either way it is slavery. In Massachusetts, I even see prisoners-slaves out on the streets picking up trash under the guard of a sheriff.

In the United States slavery is universal in most prisons, including all federal prisons. The number of able-bodied prisoners who do not work is negligible. When a prisoner arrives they are assigned work duties. If they refuse them, there are a range of both official and ad hoc methods of coercing the prisoner into working. The most basic of these is "time off for good behavior", or "arbeit macht frei" in German: if you work, your sentence is (theoretically) reduced. In many cases trivial demerits are concocted to erase these credits, if the prison guards desire it, or they simply need more workers. The second standard punishment is solitary confinement, a small featureless cell in which the prisoner is locked 24-hours per day. The "food" such prisoners get is deliberately designed to be punitive.

Prisons also use ad hoc methods to torture prisoners that refuse to work. These methods are not reported because they are illegal. One standard method is "gas" the prisoner, meaning to smother them with pepper spray or military grade tear gas. Another is to handcuff them in the shower and then turn on the water to scalding hot. Another trick is to put them in a cell with an insanely violent prisoner or a strong man who is known to be a homosexual rapist. Also, the guards can simply look the other way while the "working" prisoners beat the "slacker".

The work in US prisons is of two types: chores and factory work. The chores are things like cleaning, cooking and laundry. Factory work involves organized labor in on-site factories. Large for-profit corporations like Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) and the federal UNICOR operate these factories that they "contract" to privileged businesses such as certain textile manufacturers. In some cases judges have been convicted for bribery by prison operators to send more people to their facility.

Currently, the United States has roughly 2.5 million people in forced labor prisons and camps plus 7 million people in "probation" doing part-time forced labor. That compares with a peak of 1.7 million in the gulags of the former Soviet Union (1953), and 7.5 million in Germany and its territories (1944). By comparison, North Korea has only an estimated 200,000 in forced labor camps.

  • 19
    You should remove the nazi reference. The prison system in the US is incredibly broken and in large parts inhumane, but it just is not comparable to Auschwitz. At all. Your answer could also benefit from some sources if possible.
    – tim
    Commented Feb 23, 2017 at 21:32
  • 15
    But Auschwitz wasn't just a labor camp, it was a concentration and extermination camp which killed at least a million people. It didn't do so through forced labor, but through industrialized means such as gas chambers as part of the Holocaust. The goal was not to extract labor force, but to exterminate all Jews. It is just not comparable to forced labor camps in general or US prisons specifically.
    – tim
    Commented Feb 23, 2017 at 21:58
  • 10
    In general, any comparison to the holocaust better be indisputably necessary, otherwise you just risk lessening the horrors that are still too recent in many people's memory. You answer will not suffer for losing that comparison, and you will gain less ire that way.
    – user10303
    Commented Feb 24, 2017 at 6:09
  • 5
    So US prison and NK labor camps are equivalent in your eyes? Hyperbolic rubbish to fit an agenda destroys any merit your answer might have had. Commented Feb 24, 2017 at 8:51
  • 2
    Tyler, I am happy that you took up my suggestion to transfer your comments in an answer, and a very informative and precise one moreover. I agree power with your critics that the comparison with Nazis' camp and the Gulag was unhelpful and uninformative. Nazis had labor slavery camps (where millions of French, Polish and Russian people main;y were forced tow work) but adding that up with extermination camp make little sense. Also the life expectancy of the gulags during the Stalin reign make them closer to Nazis extermination camp than to the US prisons...
    – Joël
    Commented Feb 24, 2017 at 14:47


Is there any crime that can cause slavery or involuntary servitude in the US?


Are prisoners considered as slaves?

It depends. There is a strong argument that the modern Prison-Industrial Complex is slavery since it is actively expanding and innovating new ways to imprison the U.S population and profit from it.

Background to the reasoning

At yearend 2011, approximately 7 million individuals were under some form of correctional control in the United States, including 2.2 million incarcerated in federal, state, or local prisons and jails.

From the early 1970s to the present, the rate of incarceration and the number of people in prisons and private prisons has climbed dramatically in the United States, despite the rate of crime declining since the late 20th century.

The United States maintains 25% of the world's incarcerated prisoners whilst harboring only 5% of the world's population. This is known among researchers as Mass Incarceration The US's prison population dwarfs the prison populations of every other developed country in the world, including countries thought to be repressive like China and Russia.

Michelle Alexander describes Mass Incarceration as

"the criminal justice system but also to the larger web of laws, rules, policies, and customs that control those labeled criminals both in and out of prison."

In the last forty years, incarceration has increased with rates upwards of 500% despite crime rates decreasing nationally and internationally.

Link to Slavery

Ratified in 1865, the 13th amendment states in full

“Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”

In short, slavery was abolished for everyone except criminals.

The Southern Strategy, a self-described strategy of the Republican Party to gain political support in the South by appealing to the racism against African Americans harbored by many southern white voters, was a key lever in the rise of the prison population.

Republican strategist Lee Atwater discussed the Southern strategy in a 1981 interview later published in Southern Politics in the 1990s by Alexander P. Lamis.

Atwater: You start out in 1954 by saying, "Nigger, nigger, nigger." By 1968 you can't say "nigger" — that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states' rights and all that stuff. You're getting so abstract now [that] you're talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you're talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is [that] blacks get hurt worse than whites. And subconsciously maybe that is part of it. I'm not saying that. But I'm saying that if it is getting that abstract, and that coded, that we are doing away with the racial problem one way or the other. You follow me — because obviously sitting around saying, "We want to cut this," is much more abstract than even the busing thing, and a hell of a lot more abstract than "Nigger, nigger."

Slavery and Private Prisons

Using the Southern Strategy and positioning themselves as the party of Law & Order; the Republican Party were able to pass legislation which disproportionately targeted African American, Latino and impoverished communities. A trend which continued under Democrat, President Bill Clinton.

Under the sentencing laws from 1960-2000, your chance of going to prison as a black male was 1 in 3. Racial minorities are more likely than white Americans to be arrested; once arrested, they are more likely to be convicted; and once convicted, they are more likely to face stiff sentences. African-American males are six times more likely to be incarcerated than white males.

Increased Sentencing Laws

America, on average, gives longer sentences than the rest of the western nations and famously uses the 3 Strikes Rule. The exact application of the three-strikes laws varies considerably from state to state, but the laws call for life sentences without possibility of release for at least 25 years on their third strike. Some states include additional, lesser offenses that one would not normally see as violent. California mandated a minimum sentence of 25-to-life so long as the first two felonies were deemed to be either "serious" or "violent". A serious crime could be as innocuous as simply "drug possession".

War on Drugs

The "War on Drugs" is a policy that was initiated by Republican Richard Nixon with the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act of 1970 and vigorously pursued by Republican Ronald Reagan. By 2010, drug offenders in federal prison had increased to 500,000 per year, up from 41,000 in 1985.

According to Michelle Alexander, drug related charges accounted for more than half the rise in state prisoners between 1985 and 2000. 31 million people have been arrested on drug related charges, approximately 1 in 10 Americans. Analysis of drug related sentencing reveals that African Americans are targeted to a far greater degree; for instance the Act imposed the same five-year mandatory sentence on users of crack (typically black crime) as on those possessing 100 times as much powder cocaine (a typically white crime)

It should be noted that the majority of stronger sentencing legislation, almost everything discussed thus far, was sponsored by ALEC (more below).

As the prison population grows, a rising rate of incarceration feeds small and large businesses such as providers of furniture, transportation, food, clothes and medical services, construction and communication firms. Furthermore, the prison system is the third largest employer in the world. Prison activists who buttress the notion of a prison industrial complex have argued that these parties have a great interest in the expansion of the prison system since their development and prosperity directly depends on the number of inmates. They liken the prison industrial complex to any industry that needs more and more raw materials, prisoners being the material.

The prison industrial complex has also been said to include private businesses that benefit from the exploitation of the prison labor; prison mechanisms remove "unexploitable" labor, or so-called "underclass", from society and redefine it as highly exploitable cheap labor. Scholars have argued that the trend of "hiring out prisoners" is a continuation of the slavery tradition.

Reliance on mass imprisonment has created a financial vortex, which sucks away the majority of over $50 billion spent on corrections by the states alone. This penal entrenchment has pushed legislatures to devise ways to make criminals help foot the bill, with Legal Financial Obligations representing a modern iteration of state and local fundraising. LFOs add to an array of legal consequences that create a permanent underclass and keep a lock on individuals long after they leave prison.

Increasingly, jurisdictions across the country are assessing hefty court fines and fees, LFOs, on defendants, requiring them to pay thousands of dollars or face more jail time.

ALEC and Private Prisons / Slaves

ALEC is a Washington, D.C.-based public policy organization that ALEC provides a forum for state legislators and private sector members to collaborate on bills—draft legislation that members may customize and introduce for debate in their own state legislatures.

ALEC is so widespread that several Republican legislators have forgotten to take the ALEC logo off of the draft legislation that ALEC had given to them to introduce into the house.

ALEC has produced bills on a broad range of Republican issues, such as reducing regulation and individual and corporate taxation, combating illegal immigration, loosening environmental regulations, tightening voter identification rules, weakening labor unions and opposing gun control.

Under their Criminal Justice Task Force, ALEC has developed model bills which State legislators can then consult when proposing "tough on crime" initiatives including "Truth in Sentencing" and "Three Strikes" laws. By funding and participating in ALEC's Criminal Justice Task Forces, critics argue, private prison companies influence legislation for tougher, longer sentences. Writing in Governing magazine in 2003, Alan Greenblatt states:

ALEC has been a major force behind both privatizing state prison space and keeping prisons filled. It put forward bills providing for mandatory minimum sentences and three-strikes sentencing requirements. About 40 states passed versions of ALEC's Truth in Sentencing model bill, which requires prisoners convicted of violent crimes to serve most of their sentences without chance of parole.

In 1995 alone, ALEC’s Truth in Sentencing Act was signed into law in twenty-five states. (Then State Rep. Scott Walker was an ALEC member when he sponsored Wisconsin’s truth-in-sentencing laws and, according to PR Watch, used its statistics to make the case for the law.)

More recently, ALEC has proposed innovative “solutions” to the overcrowding it helped create, such as privatizing the parole process through “the proven success of the private bail bond industry,” as it recommended in 2007. (The American Bail Coalition is an executive member of ALEC’s Public Safety and Elections Task Force.)

In a 2011 report by the ACLU, it is claimed that the rise of the for-profit prison industry is a "major contributor" to "mass incarceration," along with bloated state budgets. Louisiana, for example, has the highest rate of incarceration in the world with the majority of its prisoners being housed in privatized, for-profit facilities. Such institutions could face bankruptcy without a steady influx of prisoners. A 2013 Bloomberg report states that in the past decade the number of inmates in for-profit prisons throughout the U.S. rose 44 percent

Free Labour

Much of ALEC’s proposed labor legislation, implemented state by state is allowing replacement of public workers with prisoners.

“It’s bad enough that our companies have to compete with exploited and forced labor in China,” says Scott Paul Executive Director of the Alliance for American Manufacturing, a coalition of business and unions. “They shouldn’t have to compete against prison labor here at home. The goal should be for other nations to aspire to the quality of life that Americans enjoy, not to discard our efforts through a downward competitive spiral.”


It should be noted that Senator Bernie Sanders proposed the **Justice is Not for Sale Act** which states

The handful of corporations that provide correctional services profit tremendously from mass incarceration, and have lobbied, through the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) for more draconian criminal laws that have the effect of increasing the incarcerated population. The private prison industry has joined the ranks of most aggressive lobbyists, and the two largest companies have spent $25 million on their efforts. A rise in lobbying and direct campaign contributions has correlated with dramatic growth in private prison population, greater overall spending on corrections and a sharp increase in private company profits. The stock of the top two private prison companies together is worth over $5.5 billion.

Since his election of Donald Trump; the stocks of the two biggest private prison operators — CoreCivic (formerly know as Corrections Corp. of America) and Geo Group have doubled since election day. CoreCivic is up 140% since President Trump won in November; Geo Group has risen 98%.

Additional Reading

Report of The Sentencing Project to the United Nations Human Rights Committee Regarding Racial Disparities in the United States Criminal Justice System

  • 1
    Thanks for this in-depth answer. A short summary/timeline may be helpful for some (without careful reading, it isn't apparent what the link between slavery and private prisons/war on drugs/alec is). You may also want to fill in the gap you left between 1865 and the 70s (issues like convict lease mentioned in other answers), because it seems important in the direct link between chattel slavery and forced prison work (and without it it currently sounds a bit like Republicans just decided for no reason to go back to slavery in the 60s, when it's really a gradual change).
    – tim
    Commented Feb 28, 2017 at 22:35
  • I was all typed out haha. Will improve it tomorrow for sure. Commented Feb 28, 2017 at 22:50

Involuntary servitude such as hard labor is routinely imposed in the military justice system. It is occasionally imposed in state prison systems, sometimes by statute and sometimes as a matter of prison practice, usually in the form of involuntary chain gangs.

From a legal perspective, neither incarceration itself, nor participating in programs in exchange for even minimal pay or incentives, is considered involuntary servitude.

Sometimes prison labor is used on a contract basis by private enterprise (e.g. phone banks), although government work (e.g. license plates) is more common due to private sector opposition to low wage prison labor competition. Community service sentences are arguably involuntary servitude too, although they are usually only imposed pursuant to a plea.

There is no offense for which someone is sold into the private slavery of another although this is constitutional as a punishment.

  • 1
    "Does that means formal non-cooperation punishment conditions must meet any minimal standards of care for prisoners?" Yes.
    – ohwilleke
    Commented Feb 28, 2017 at 19:25

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