Prisoners and Labor Day, a September reflection

Prisoners and Labor Day

by Caroline Apodaca, a Prisoner Express student staff member

Labor Day is considered an American achievement in celebrating workers’ contributions nationwide. Before the holiday’s establishment, , labor activists advocated for this day of acknowledgement, leading to its recognition by numerous states. The popularity of this day ultimately led to an 1894 Congressional act that implemented Labor Day nationally. 

Often left out of worker’s rights conversations are the 1.2 million people who are incarcerated across the country and laboring in the facilities they reside in. As September and the month celebrating worker’s rights with Labor Day comes to an end, Prisoner Express wants to recognize the contribution of all incarcerated workers. 

One of the most history-altering congressional acts, the 13th Amendment, declared that “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.” While this amendment effectively banned slavery and involuntary servitude, one might argue that conditions of forced labor were still considered permittable for people convicted of a crime. From Slavery by Another Name by Douglas A. Blackmon to Ava Duvernay’s critically acclaimed 2016 documentary “13th,” scholars have often deemed the period after the establishment of the 13th Amendment as “new slavery” – the incarceration of thousands of Black individuals for target violations enforced by the Vagrancy Act.

Just one year following the 13th Amendment’s ratification in 1865, the Vagrancy Act of 1866 was passed by Congress. The act required three months of employment for anyone who visibly appeared unemployed or homeless. Implementation of the Vagrancy Act required local law enforcement to arrest people who “looked” like a vagrant and then distribute their labor to private employers. The idea was that arrested individuals could pay off the fine associated with their arrest by contributing their labor. In reality, however, private employers paid little to no wages for hours of dangerous work. This law was supposed to address an apparent “increase in idle and disorderly persons.” Unsurprisingly, those who were disparately impacted were recently freed people.

The Vagrancy Act can be considered a precursor to the ways that the American criminal justice system utilizes labor to belittle people who are incarcerated, specifically marginalized populations. Present-day practices prove that the labor of incarcerated people can be comparably dangerous, with little to no pay or compensation. A 2022 report from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in collaboration with the University of Chicago Law School Global Human Rights Clinic presents thorough findings that suggests that the U.S. benefits substantially from the large contributions of prison labor, often conducted in terrible conditions and with little pay. The report notes that, in 2021, captive labor generated an estimated $2 billion in goods to be sold to the public, state agencies, and correctional facilities, with an additional $9 billion in cost-saving labor through facility maintenance, agriculture, and community service. For all of these contributions, many of these workers made an average of 13 to 52 cents an hour, while some worked for nothing. 

Through all of this work, these incarcerated individuals rarely received protection. The ACLU reports that the Occupational Safety and Health Act, the keystone standard for safe working conditions, does not apply to most incarcerated workers– specifically those employed in state facilities. In addition to experiencing a lack of worker safeguards, these workers often lack proper training and are placed in unsafe working conditions. A Time Magazine investigation  from 2018 found that inmate firefighters who were deployed to work on forest fires in California, for instance, were more likely to be hospitalized with injuries than professional firefighters. 

In recognition of this year’s Labor Day, Prisoner Express invites you to reflect on the contributions of working incarcerated people, as well as the rights that hold to safety, just compensation, and bodily wellbeing As we support the rights of inmates to fair and productive employment, we can also work towards making their labor less invisible, towards systems which are more equitable and just.


Interested in learning more? Check out these resources!: 


Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II by Douglas A. Blackmon

Worse Than Slavery by David Oshinsky


13th Directed by Ava DuVernay (2016)

The Farm: Angola, USA Directed by Jonathan Stack, Wilbert Rideau, Liz Garbus (1998)


Want to get involved with Prisoner Express? 

Prisoner Express (PE) is a project of the Center for Transformative Action located in Anabel Taylor Hall at Cornell University. The program seeks to spread educational materials through by sending books and packets to correctional institutions across the country. In return, people who are incarcerated send in essays, poetry, prose, and art. We are always looking for volunteers – please check out our website for more information!