Prison Labor as Redemptive? If You’re a White Person Benefitting from the Labor


You recently asked us to think about what it means that Hillary and Bill Clinton, like other First Families of Arkansas (and Louisiana and, at the time, Missouri), used prisoners as unpaid laborers. This fact is old–Clinton wrote about it in her 1996 It Takes a Village, but it’s gained traction in recent days in part because of the work of Samuel Sinyangwe and Jeannette Jing. Jing linked Bill Maher’s use of the term “house n—–” and Clinton’s acceptance of the “longstanding tradition” of using imprisoned black men as free laborers as a way to “keep costs down”–a most impressive euphemism!

Here is Clinton, in 1996, writing about encountering black prisoners working for free in the governor’s mansion:

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I appreciate your concern for Clinton, which comes from an empathetic place. As white people, it’s easy to miss the injustice here. (In fact, many white people continue to defend the practice of using unpaid prison labor to serve government interests. If it were up for popular vote, I bet many states would do more of it.) Can we judge Clinton today for her thoughts back then? After all, 13th hadn’t come out, so how were white people supposed to know that there is a direct historical relationship between the end of slavery–which “deprived” white people of the free labor of blacks–and the mass incarceration of black men (which Clinton supported) and a corresponding reliance on the free or very, very, very low cost work of prisoners?

How could we know?

We know because this didn’t happen by accident. It happened on purpose. If we white people didn’t know, it’s because we didn’t want to know.

Granted, sometimes such slavery (and, yes, readers–it is slavery: the forced, unpaid labor of someone who is physically controlled by another. And it is legal under the 13th amendment.) is hidden from us so it’s hard to see. That is the trick of capitalism: to keep the parts that make us squeamish hidden. This is why businesses want to hide the repulsive gap between CEOs and workers, why the “ag-gag” prevents journalistic coverage of what happens on feedlots and slaughterhouses (under the guise of protecting us from terrorism), why we ship manufacturing jobs to places where we can’t see the abuses of workers that would violate US labor laws. The system is designed to be hard to see because if we see it–11% of the world’s children trapped in child labor, in diamond mines and tobacco or chocolate fields–we might decide to celebrate Valentine’s Day a little differently.

We can see Clinton’s misgivings in the passage from It Takes a Village. She’s uncomfortable with the prison laborers. But it quickly becomes clear that this discomfort is not with a system of exploitation but rather with concern for her own safety. She goes on to talk about how the prisoners were vetted and notes that she found, as she was told that she would, that the murderers made the best employees; it was the people in for property crimes that caused the problems in the mansion. These men, she tells us later, don’t have low IQs but were “emotional illiterates.” Sociologically speaking, she rejects biological arguments about prisoner inferiority and instead suggests, as so many good liberals do, that they come from a deprived culture. This is still a “kinds-of-people” argument, one that places blame on the individual and their culture rather than a system that crafts laws to imprison black people. The idea that a hundreds-year old system of exploitation is rigged to insure that black men are disproportionately jailed doesn’t seem to have crossed her mind.

Instead, 1996 Clinton accepts her fate as the (white) mistress of the house, overseeing black slave labor. (Please, readers, don’t argue that these folks aren’t slaves. Legally, they are. We wrote the 13th amendment to say so. We could have written it otherwise, and Radical Republicans Thaddeus Stevens and Charles Sumner tried. This slavery is not legally racialized, though it is de facto racialized. This slavery is not inheritable, as was slavery in the 19th century and before. But it is slavery because the Constitution says that it is.)  She even manages to use a tone to suggests that this labor was for the good of the prisoner. Indeed, such programs are often called “rehabilitation” programs–as if the benefit is to the prisoner, not to the state.


Above, black prisoners work in a field while an armed guard watches them from horseback. Not 1900 but today. In addition to working for state governments, prisoners work for free or nearly free for major companies, including Whole Foods, McDonalds, Wendy’s, Walmart, Starbucks, and more. Such labor keeps costs low but also provides an unfair advantage to companies that can access the prison labor market. 

But look: if these murderers are rehabilitated, they can be freed. Clinton notes that some of them are in their 30s and have already served almost two decades, about half their lives.  In many cases, they could be freed without risk of reoffense. If they couldn’t, they wouldn’t have been working in the governor’s mansion.

If “rehabilitation” was the goal, then prisoners options wouldn’t be to sit in a cell and “do nothing” (or, more accurately, learn and participate in the violence of prison) or work for free; it would be to do the work of fixing their problems and making their wrongs right.

This argument–that unpaid prison laborers are being reformed by performing work for the very political leaders who craft policies that deprive black Americans, free or imprisoned, of legitimate opportunities for success are being improved by their slavery–isn’t new. It’s older than Emancipation. Robert E. Lee, writing about the burden of whites to “improve” the lives of blacks (Slavery, he says, was harder on white than on enslaved black people.), says it this way:

I think it [slavery] however a greater evil to the white man than to the black race, & while my feelings are strongly enlisted in behalf of the latter, my sympathies are more strong for the former. The blacks are immeasurably better off here than in Africa, morally, socially & physically. The painful discipline they are undergoing, is necessary for their instruction as a race, & I hope will prepare & lead them to better things. How long their subjugation may be necessary is known & ordered by a wise Merciful Providence. Their emancipation will sooner result from the mild & melting influence of Christianity, than the storms & tempests of fiery Controversy.

Lee, of course, was the leader of a treasonous military effort to defend that “longstanding tradition” of free black labor for white profit, justified by saying slavery was for the good of blacks–a favor, really, that whites generously offered and one that Lee embraced as the owner of slaves. Clinton was a far less powerful First Lady. But could she have done it differently? Thaddeus Stevens, Charles Sumner, and thousands of prisoners who have worked in chain gangs would have said so.



PS. For goodness sake, yes, she’s better than Trump, who campaigned on a promise to imprison even more black men, and of course I voted for her and donated to her campaign. And, no, I’m not holding her to a higher standard than male political leaders. And–trust me on this one–I get how hard it is to enter Arkansas culture as a progressive white woman from the North. I understand that she said this 1996, not 2017, and that times have changed, even if Clinton has not changed as much as I would hope. I think Clinton has done some remarkable work on behalf of some vulnerable populations.

And I still think she should have known better. And I do think that this passage suggests an orientation toward work, race, and criminal justice that I haven’t yet seen the mainstream Democratic Party challenge.

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