Prison Labor and the Thirteenth Amendment


Incarcerated men return from working in the fields, Louisiana State Penitentiary, 2011. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert).

The Thirteenth Amendment, ratified in 1865, made slavery and involuntary servitude unconstitutional in the United States “except as punishment for crime.” As the end of slavery left a void in the Southern labor market, the criminal justice system became one of the primary means of continuing the legalized involuntary servitude of African Americans.

Initially, states passed discriminatory laws to arrest and imprison large numbers of Black people, then leased prisoners to private individuals and corporations in a system of convict leasing that resulted in dangerous conditions, abuse, and death. While states profited, prisoners earned no pay and faced inhumane, hazardous, and often deadly work conditions. Thousands of Black people were forced into a brutal system that historians have called “worse than slavery.”

By the middle of the 20th century, states abandoned convict leasing due to industrialization and political pressure and extended slavery through chain gangs and prison farms. This legacy continues to influence the criminal justice system today, in places like Louisiana State Penitentiary. Named “Angola” after the provenance of the enslaved people who worked the same land when it was a plantation, the prison requires incarcerated men to work in the fields. Eighty percent of Angola’s imprisoned men are Black, and its warden compares the grounds to “a big plantation in days gone by.”