Unlucky 13: How Prison Slavery Feeds Fordham

One of the first articles I ever wrote as a columnist here at FPR in my freshman year was about prison reform, a cause I still strongly believe in.  It is an issue that still plagues America as for-profit prisons gain investments, as COVID-19 ravages through incarcerated people and as prisoners still work for mere cents an hour providing labor for companies who don’t want to actually have to pay minimum wage to their workers (or, god forbid, a living wage).  So this week, when an Instagram account conspicuously titled “fu.aramark” followed me, my interest was piqued, and, upon investigating, my thoughts drifted back to the issue of prison reform.  The Instagram account, only created about a week ago, listed its mission statement as “complete severance between Fordham University and Aramark Food Services on moral and ethical grounds.  Continued support of Aramark,” the post went on, “is unjustifiable in light of their atrocious labor practices, gross mistreatment of incarcerated people, and crimes against our environment.” My roommate, who works as Editorial Director for our sister publication the Fordham Ram, pointed me to an article written last fall by Joergen Ostensen, in which he interviewed an incarcerated man forced to work for Aramark.  He outlined the health code violations and the inhumane working conditions in the prison factory, complete with pay of about 15 to 20 cents an hour.

Aramark is a multi-billion dollar corporation that provides food and food services to thousands of colleges and schools across the nation.  However, in recent years, it has come under fire from some institutions from many angles.  In 2019, NYU ended its contract with the company after it failed a health inspection and after students protested against its use of forced labor.  Aramark not only provides food services to prisons across the country, but it uses incarcerated people as laborers as well.  This, of course, is inherently dubious to those of us worried about the exploitation of incarcerated peoples.  In the same year, 2019, eight formerly incarcerated people actually sued Aramark in California, alleging that prisons and the county sheriff were not only using Aramark for their food services but for profit as well.    The lawsuit points out that there are regulations for companies that use incarcerated people as a source of cheap labor.  One of those regulations is that the company must provide “no less than 20 percent of the wages directly to prisoners.”  Aramark does not do this.  Some prisoners, including those who filed the suit, were forced to work “under threat of punitive measures by their jailers” and were not paid for their work, which violates California law.  They were confused at the treatment they received: to these workers, it felt like slavery — and isn’t slavery illegal?

Under the 13th Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, passed January 31st, 1865, “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.”  And here is where the issue lies.  Going forth, I would like to discourage people, especially activists, from using the word “exploitation” when we talk about the 13th Amendment itself.  Prisons using incarcerated people as laborers without paying them are not “exploiting” anything within the text of the 13th Amendment.  Rather, this was how the Amendment was intentionally designed.  The “except clause” was one hundred percent intentional and on purpose.  We, as a nation, in telling our own history and in praising ourselves for all the good things we have done, have simply glossed over the fact that we never actually completely outlawed slavery.  This surprises a lot of people, even to this day.  Racial justice lawyer Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow is a fantastic testament to the blind eye that most people have turned towards the plight of Black Americans and to their continued legal subjugation in prisons and on parole.  Corporations like Aramark who use prison labor are not “exploiting” the Constitution; they are exploiting people.  Slavery is still legal in this country.  It has never been illegal in this country.  There is no shady “loophole” that corporations have managed to wriggle through in order to justify their immoral practices.  They are, quite simply and quite literally, justified by the letter of the law.  

And this, of course, is a problem in and of itself, much larger than Aramark.  But as we all know, not everything that is legal is moral.  If you look at the 13th Amendment, and your first thought upon realizing that it is not illegal to enslave people is not, “What?????” but rather, “How can I use this to make money?,” then I daresay you are one of the more immoral types.  Countless corporations have used the 13th Amendment to contract out labor to prisons.  This is why we call it a “prison industrial system.”  And, as Joergen Ostensen said in his September article in the Ram, “abuse like this is endemic under capitalism.”  We should not be afraid to call this violence what it is: slavery.  And since 1619, slavery in this country has been driven by the desire for profit.  Greed and profit are the cancerS that poison the earth and poison people against each other, to see each other as mere means to an end, objects ready and willing to exploit; capitalism feeds the fire.   Prison labor is just one example of the way that subjugated groups of people are exploited, and, until we give up the mantra of profits over people, there will be no justice, no humanity, and no peace.