How many of you purchase, or at least benefit from, the purchase of Victoria’s Secret products? Every day without thought, we purchase lettuce from Walmart, go through the McDonald’s drive through or call AT&T’s call center about a question on our latest billing statement. We are complacent consumers, too caught up in our own trials and tribulations to consider how we can get a sandwich for one dollar in a world that is otherwise enmeshed in hyperinflation. We all reap the benefits of modern-day slavery without question, because if we knew we would be forced to do something about it.

Under the banner of prison labor, it’s justified and even encouraged by giving the companies that utilize its massive tax breaks in addition to paying as low as four cents an hour to a few dollars a day. According to The Nation, the hiring of “risky groups” under Work Opportunity Tax Credit affords businesses $2400 for every work release inmate they hire and get back up to 40% of the wages they paid.

August 21st of this year marked the beginning of the largest prison strike in history. Their demands should be self-evident; treat them as human beings, not chattel, and allow them a way to rehabilitate themselves to be productive members of society upon release.

The general consensus is that prisoners are entitled to no respect in this country, according to Civil Rights lawyer Michelle Alexander, criminals are the one social group we are openly allowed to hate in colorblind America.

Once you have been labeled a felon, you are no longer a part of ‘the worthy’, your rights as a citizen are rescinded, which almost ensures recidivism will happen as there are so few legitimate avenues for income. Felons are socially not allowed to work jobs that would pay them enough to live and keep their children, get financial aid to go back to school and better themselves, vote, serve on a jury or receive government subsidized housing and other welfare benefits. The money that would be used for the aforementioned programs is then reallocated towards the establishment of new prisons.

While only about half of inmates are made to fulfil prison labor, it is important to note that there is criticism regarding the fact that half of inmates get to live for free without getting anything in return. It’s not as if prisoners want to be incarcerated, yet the average taxpayer feels like they are owed something for the privilege of residing in one of America’s luxurious maximum-security prisons.

If we contextualize the above with the conditions that led to the establishment of the first prisons and prison labor we will see how problematic that logic is. The first prisons were established following the Civil War when the slaves were emancipated, black only offenses were legislated like vagrancy, making a lewd remark, or stealing a pig because they were freed without any infrastructure to do anything legitimately. White people in this country felt that American slavery was an act of mercy for black people, a rescue mission to instill civility. In 2018, a subset group still believes black people should be grateful they aren’t still living in huts. Prisons provided a space for the American government to legitimize harsh free labor. Black persons are no longer the only race represented in prisons performing this labor, yet despite black people only accounting for 13% of this country’s population, black men alone account for over 37% of the inmate population. America boasts only 4% of the world’s population, yet 22% of its prisoners, this means that 0.24% of the world accounts for 8.8% of prisoners.

Some have tried to argue the parallel, that prison labor is also a civilizing mission that teaches valuable skills. The state of California relied on inmate firefighters to help them fight their wildfires, where they risked their lives for a common good they won’t even have access to once released from prison because of their records. This is undeniably cruel, giving someone a taste of what could be before taking it away. Life fulfilment for prisoners then, is contingent upon being caged; enslaved for their own benefit.

Most prisoners are non-violent drug offenders, an “offence” that is considered a medical condition in most progressive Western nations. A neoliberal construction that has been referred to as Carceral Capitalism, a 2018 book, investigates the ways state and local governments racially profile, and over police in order to create capital; this is not limited to federal grant money being allocated to police departments for arrests made in the War on Drugs, but also civil asset forfeiture, which basically means the police can confiscate the homes, cars and other goods of suspected drug offenders and sell them at auction. The local government is then also entitled to the spoils of war with some actually using the fines and fees made from arrests to meet the deficits in the government’s budget. In this system, it doesn’t matter if you are innocent, we are all potential means for profit. Criminal justice and prison reform then, should be everyone’s concern, we cannot continue to proliferate a narrative that situates the issues as a ‘them’ problem.

The prison strikes currently happening across the nation demand to be discussed, it is current with implications that could affect our everyday lives. If the minimum amount of care given to prisoners increases, so too might the treatment of other subjugated groups that have been conflated by our president as criminals; guilty by association of brown skin or non-heteronormativity. A society can only be as great or free as its lowest member. If this is true, what does it say about America and the majority that composes this nation? What individual acts can we take to change this image?

TYLER SMITH is a columnist for The Vidette. She can be reached at tssmit1@ilstu.edu

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