State-Imposed Forced Labor: The U.S. Prisoners Fighting Fires or Making Products for the Consumer Market

February 01, 2016 Cazzie Reyes Opinion 
Forced Labor

The 13th amendment is cited as the document that abolished slavery in the United States. However, a provision in the clause permits the use of prison labor. This Black History Month, we’ll explore the years following the passage of the amendment and the development of state-imposed forced labor in the country.

This week’s post covers how prison labor keeps California’s fires at bay and produces the flow of goods available in the consumer market.

Fighting Fires

Since the early 1900s, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) has been running a program that utilizes inmates as firefighters. Inmates earn $1.00-$3.90 a day clearing fire breaks, cleaning up debris and fighting wildfires. A volunteer civilian firefighter, in comparison, makes the minimum wage: $9.00 an hour. On average, every year, the program provides approximately three million volunteer hours for fire and other emergency activities as well as seven million volunteer hours for community service projects. California taxpayers save about $100 million a year. 

Who is putting out those California wildfires? ©Andrea Booher

Picking Produce

Walmart started sourcing its fruits and vegetables from Martori Farms in the early 1990s. In 2011, news broke out that the farm was using female inmates to harvest its produce. In 2012, Martori Farms reported that it reverted back to using farm workers participating in guest worker programs.

Providing Farmed Fish and Cheese

Check your groceries. Did the tilapia you buy come from Quixotic Farming? Is your cheese distributed by Haystack Mountain Goat Dairy? These two private companies have an agreement with the Colorado Correctional Industries. Whole Foods has agreed to pull these items from their shelves by April 2016, after much pressure from prison reform advocacy groups.

Making Furniture, Lunches and License Plates

Washington Correctional Industries makes up to $70 million a year and is the country’s fourth largest prison labor program. Here, some 1,600 inmates work in factories to produce dorm furniture and school lunches. The Walla Walla penitentiary started making the state’s vehicle license plates since the 1920s and continues to do so today.

Sewing Lingerie

Back in the 1990s, the National Institute of Justice found that garment manufacturer Third Generation contracted the South Carolina Correctional Industries to attain sewing services from Leath Correctional Facility. Victoria’s Secret as well as JC Penney purchased lingerie and other apparel from Third Generation but quickly ended that relationship once reports of the garments’ origins surfaced.

"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."

Prison labor programs have their advocates and critics. Part 2 will cover the history of prison labor in the U.S. Part 3 addresses mainstream arguments for or against it.


Topics: Forced Labor

About the Author



Cazzie Reyes

Cazzie Reyes is a Researcher for the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center's Anti-Trafficking Programs. She graduated from Bradley University with a Bachelor's degree in International Studies and a minor in Women's Studies.