Slavery in America
It is surprising to think that slavery exists in the United States. The United States has fought wars all over the world in the name of defending human rights. Based on their justification for the wars, it is ironical that slavery, which is a violation of human rights, is alleged to be happening in the country. Unlike the picture of an African in a plantation, modern-day slavery manifests in the form of forced labor (whose features are the exercise of coercion and denial of freedom).
In the pre-civil war times, slaves were compelled to work. The capture and importation of slaves from Africa to America was primarily meant to obtain cheap or free labor. They often rebelled against their masters.
The slaves in the pre-Civil War period worked mainly in the plantations on the Southern side of North America, while the on Northern part of North America, slave labor was used for its non-plantation system. In the northern part, both skilled and unskilled black slaves worked in the rural industries: tanneries, salt works, and iron furnaces. In the south, slaves looked after stock and raised crops for exportation (Berlin 46). Most of the slaves’ time was spent around their master’s house, working as gardeners, stable keepers, and domestic servants.
Slave labor in pre-Civil War North America was hardly appreciated. They were paid nothing-except for either food or clothing, occasionally-or very little. Even so, their masters and leasers still thought they were paying too much: “A negro or black slave requires too much money at one time” (Berlin 47).
Their masters owned slaves in the pre-Civil War era. They were used for cheap labor or leasing. This meant that their masters made a lot of money from them. Some of the slave masters just used them as a measure of social status (Berlin 48). In the pre-Civil War period society, white person’s social status was partly measured by the number of slaves he/she owned.
Incidences of rebellion have been recorded as having happened in slavery in North America before the Civil War. Being more familiar with navigating thick forests than their masters, slaves found it easy to escape into the woods as a means of protest or liberation. Slaves often fled into the forests to escape servitude. For these slaves, they either had to escape the hell they lived in, or stay and continue being tortured. They mostly opted to be free and starve rather than work under ruthless masters. Forests dangers and slave hunters managed to return most of the slaves to their masters (Berlin 56). Some of the slaves managed to escape permanently.
Compared to what prisoners go through in the American prison systems, it is possible that the prisoners work involuntarily. There has been implementation of chain gangs (groups of prisoners chained together while they are working outside the prison) in some of the American prisons. The chain gang is a form of forced labor. It is brutal. It was first applied to road development project in the 1890s. Prisoners had chains wrapped around their ankles while they worked, ate and slept. Browne mentions the existence of a chain gang of women in a prison in Maricopa County (80). Such measures are commonly meant to reinforce cooperation.
The work done in today’s American prisons involves textile work, construction, manufacturing, and service work. Browne writes that the prisoners in the American prison system manufacture soaps and shoes, do lab dental work, recycle, do carpentry and metal work, and operate dairy farms and slaughterhouses (79).
Prisoners in the American prisons are actually paid. The wages are lower than the minimum wage allowed in the country though. Browne writes that the prisoners are not legally protected in terms of minimum wage and overtime work (78). This loophole may allow those using the prisoners’ labor to pay as low as they like. This type of exploitation of prisoners is common in the American prison system.
In the prison system in America, as Browne outlines, private corporations are able to rent factories in prisons or borrow prisoners out to factories, and there are factories in prisons that are operated by the government, whose turnovers are in billions (80).
Incidences of defiance and resistance against unfair use of prison labor have been reported in the American prison system. Prisoners have resorted to forming Prison Unions in order to bolter their complaints about low wages and the denial of the right to bargain. Some prisons have resorted to implementing the chain gang as a counter measure against the defiance of prison workers.
As a conclusion, similarities between pre-civil war slavery and slavery in the American prison system can be seen. In both cases, the type of work done, though different, is physically demanding; the wages paid are low, if any, arguably amounting to exploitation of labor. The instances of rebellion against exploitation in both cases may be interpreted as being forced to work, which as at least is a partial definition of slavery; and slave owners profited massively, as do the private corporations and government factories. The American prison system, arguably, at least, replicates the pre-civil war slavery.
Berlin, Ira. “Time, space, and the evolution of Afro-American society on British mainland North
America.” The American Historical Review (1980): 44-78. <http://www.shsu.edu/jll004/colonial_summer09/berlintimespaceandevolution.pdf>.
Browne, Jaron. “Rooted in slavery: Prison labor exploitation.” Race, Poverty & the Environment