“Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime. . . shall exist in the United States."
The 13th Amendment never truly abolished slavery in the U.S. It allowed slavery to evolve and be hidden away in our prison system. The privatization of prisons was an effort to make them profitable.
CoreCivic, one private prison corporation, operates in the U.S. through 120 facilities across 23 states. It enters contracts with the federal government through Immigrant and Customs Enforcement, U.S. Marshals Service and the Bureau of Prisons.
Out of these federal customers, the ICE contract gave CoreCivic the majority of their revenue. In 2019, CoreCivic had revenues of $1.98 billion and a net profit of $204.8 million. During the Obama administration, the government began to move away from the use of private prisons. However, this was quickly reversed under President Donald Trump.
Trump’s immigration policies have contributed to record-high numbers of immigration detainees, and most of these immigration detention centers are run by private prison companies. CoreCivic is the second largest facility operator for immigration detention in the U.S. For every 100 detainees, 21 reside in a CoreCivic facility. CoreCivic donated $250,000 to Trump’s inaugural committee.
In 2006, the T. Don Hutto Residential Center opened, housing immigration detainees. And in August, ICE renewed a 10-year contract with CoreCivic through the center despite repeated accounts of abuse including sexual misconduct and medical neglect. The name behind the center also has a long trail of brutality.
Terrell Don Hutto, one of CoreCivic’s co-founders, was heavily involved with prisons in the South. He served as the warden at the Ramsey prison farm from 1967 to 1971 and became the head of the Arkansas Department of Correction from 1971 to 1976.
In 1967, Hutto ran the Ramsey Prison Farm which held 1,500 inmates who picked cotton for no pay. This facility managed to transition seamlessly from slavery due to the 13th Amendment. Prisoners were often subject to torture for not meeting labor quotas, and in Arkansas, whipping was not outlawed until 1968. If prisoners failed to meet labor quotas and additional standards, they were placed in solitary confinement without food, a shower or clean clothes.
These prisons also employed a “building tender” system which encouraged inmates to have authority over other inmates. Building tenders would beat inmates with their fists, guns, baseball bats, whips and more. This practice can also be seen in the history of slavery as slaveholders often convinced slaves to act as overseers.
The Cummins Prison Farm in Arkansas relied heavily on inmates armed with rifles or shotguns to exercise authority over other inmates. In 1971, Hutto took over the Arkansas prison system after these conditions were declared unconstitutional.
When Hutto assumed responsibility over Arkansas prisons, he had to reduce reliance on the building tender system and improve prison conditions. More importantly, he had to find a way to make the prison farm profitable after recent reforms and court cases.
Hutto introduced cruel punishments such as forcing inmates to stand two feet from the wall and lean their forehead or nose against the wall for long periods of time with no food and sometimes no clothes. Hutto was responsible for hiring superintendent Robert Britton, who beat inmates, forced inmates to lie on the hood of his car as he drove at 40 mph and used racial slurs against Black inmates and workers.
At Cummins, during the “one-day wonder” program where troubled teens would see what prison was like, 17-year-old Willie Stewart died as a result of the brutalities brought on by the guards. When teens in the program would enter the facility, officers were reported to shoot at their feet, chase them with cars and order them to keep up with the cotton pickers.
In 1974, the conditions in Hutto’s Arkansas prisons were ruled unconstitutional. As a result of the war on drugs and explosive growth in the prison population, Hutto developed the private prison model in order to make them profitable again just as he did at prison plantations. Today, these prisons profit from inmates and their families through many avenues including privatized healthcare, phone services and negligible wages. Inmates are also frequently subject to unsanitary and unsafe conditions as a result of these corporations cutting corners to protect their profits.
Most prisons in the South operated as plantations, with many actually built on top of former slave plantations. They also often had mostly Black inmates. On these plantations, prisoners often sang work songs to keep pace with labor, a practice utilized during slavery.
From the period of slavery to now, criminal laws, ranging from traffic violations to drug use, have disproportionately affected Black and Brown people. As a result, Black people are incarcerated at more than five times the rate of white people today.
In 2017, the average wage for inmates working typical prison jobs is between 14 and 63 cents an hour. In California, inmates fight wildfires while earning about a dollar an hour. Several corporate companies even rely on prison labor. In private prisons, they are only required to pay between 12 and 40 cents an hour.
It is necessary to understand the history behind private prisons and the continuation of slavery within the general criminal justice system. Many aspects of slavery were upheld through prison plantations and in facilities under Hutto, who went on to found one of our largest private prison corporations. The Constitution must be amended to abolish any form of slavery, and laws must be changed to pay inmates substantial wages and provide them with adequate living conditions.
Our Constitution also forbids cruel and unusual punishment, yet our judicial system continues to ignore it.
Alex Petit (she/her) is a senior studying marketing and creative technologies in art and design. She hopes to pursue a career that has relevance to criminal justice reform or urban city planning.