The 13th Amendment, passed in the wake of the American Civil War, made the US the second-to-last industrialized nation to outlaw the “peculiar institution” (slavery continued in Brazil until 1889). However, the law left a loophole: “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.”

It’s a loophole that some of the biggest names in Corporate America are shamelessly using. It also explains the existence of the private prison industry and the criminalization of an increasing number of activities – which has led to an explosion of the US prison population.

It’s been described as modern capitalism’s “dirty little secret.”  US prisons contain 25% of the world’s prisoners in a nation that represents only 5% of the world’s population. Shamefully, 95% of federal prisoners and 66% of state prisoners are non-violent offenders, most often jailed for minor drug violations. At the same time, private prisons represent one of the fastest-growing industries in the nation.

Between 1990 and 2011, the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) enjoyed a 500% increase in revenues. Not surprisingly, CCA and another private prison company, Geo Group, have spent $20 million lobbying legislators and contributed approximately $5 million to political campaigns.  According to the independent research and media organization Global Research:

For the tycoons who have invested in the prison industry, it has been like finding a pot of gold. They don’t have to worry about strikes or paying unemployment insurance, vacations or comp time. All of their workers are full-time, and never arrive late or are absent because of family problems; moreover, if they don’t like the pay of 25 cents an hour and refuse to work, they are locked up in isolation cells.

And which of today’s fine global corporations are exploiting this extremely cheap, tax-payer subsidized labor force?  At the top of the list: Whole Foods, McDonald’s and Wendy’s, and Walmart. Also on the list are Victoria’s Secret, AT&T and everyone’s favorite oil company, BP – which used primarily African-American prison inmates to clean up the mess their rig made in the Gulf of Mexico rather than locals in need of employment.

The list is a lengthy one, but ultimately, the enabler is Uncle Sam himself. The federal government works through a corporation known as “Federal Prison Industries,” or UNICOR. Established in 1934, this corporation utilized prison labor in order to provide goods and services – while setting wages and working conditions for prison laborers. Originally the idea was to provide inmates with some kind of job training in order to help them in re-entering society.  It hasn’t worked out that way, however. UNICOR’s corporate motto (“When prisoners work, so does the system”) and website propaganda would have one believe they are “socially responsible,” “eco-friendly” and dedicated to providing “Made in America” products. And why not? At wages as low as .23¢ an hour, prison labor in the US is cheaper than Asian sweatshops.

State governments are also enablers. In Alabama, which has the worst prison system in the nation, Governor Robert Bentley signed a bill into law allowing private businesses to contract prison labor. Although the law requires that wages are to be “not less than the prevailing wage for work of a similar nature in the private sector,” a loophole allows the prison to withhold up to 40% of those wages in order to cover the costs of an inmate’s incarceration.

Driven by greed, the U.S. private prison system is literally feeding on itself. The availability of cheap, captive labor is an incentive to imprison more people for longer periods – and you better believe that the CCA and its stockholders are busy bribing law makers to pass more and more draconian laws in order to make it happen.

Corrections are supposed to serve one of two purposes: either to rehabilitate the law breaker and prepare him or her to re-enter society, or – in the case of violent felons – to protect society. It was never meant to serve as a source of cheap, highly exploitable labor. While such practices may save corporations on those labor costs and provide cheap “Made in America” products, they will ultimately prove very costly to society.

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K.J. McElrath is a former history and social studies teacher who has long maintained a keen interest in legal and social issues.