We have to be blunt about topics that seem too shocking to be true.
Kentucky is paying imprisoned people an average of just 9 cents an hour for labor. These inmates are forced to work for the state. The rate Kentucky is paying them is 1/90th the rate of the minimum wage.
Slavery is labor that is coerced and inadequately rewarded, Kentucky jail labor fits both of those criteria. Slavery is happening in Kentucky.
This doesn’t seem like it should be legal in the United States, but when the U.S. was outlawing slave labor after the Civil War they amended the Constitution. The 13th Amendment says, “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.” That second part of the sentence, “except as a punishment for crime,” allows the prison system to use unpaid labor as long as the person has been convicted. This also allows the justice system to force a person to work even if they don’t want to.
Just because slavery can be legal doesn’t necessarily mean it is happening. Unfortunately for Kentuckians, it is happening. A lot. The 2016 Annual Report by the Department of Corrections says that inmates worked in excess of 6.2 million hours and were paid $540,115. If we value their labor at minimum wage, they produced $45.4 million worth of labor and got paid less than 2 percent of what they deserve.
Some people may have harsh views of criminals, thinking, “well they shouldn’t have done the crime if they didn’t want to face punishment.” Let’s examine this.
We see somebody on TV accused of heinous crimes and think that’s every criminal. But the majority of the state’s prison population — 56 percent, according to the Kentucky Department of Corrections — committed crimes that weren’t violent or sex crimes.
To go even further, America’s, and subsequently Kentucky’s, set of laws that we’re supposed to abide by is so complicated that nobody knows how many criminal laws there are in the U.S. Not “nobody” in the metaphorical sense, literally nobody: no lawyer, no politician, no Supreme Court Justice knows how many laws there are that can be violated criminally.
You could be unknowingly violating the law right now. In fact, you probably are. Civil liberties advocate Harvey Silverglate says the average U.S. citizen commits three felonies a day. So, if you’re stressed today, here’s just a friendly reminder: you or any of your family members could be incarcerated on any day.
The solution to this is actual criminal justice reform and compassion for those incarcerated.
It is not right that people are working for 9 cents an hour, less than a dollar a day. We need to pay them minimum wage, or stop forced inmate labor. It is slavery.
We need criminal law reform so that not everybody is committing multiple felonies a day living their everyday lives. Our goal should be to keep people out of jails, not put more in jails because that next person could be you.
Cameron Lopez is an economics student at the University of Kentucky.