The United States’ foundation of equality, democracy, and justice tends to be a mere mask that the country wears. The national government actively continues to promote not only some of the most enlightened principles that helped form the founding of the nation – principles that were radical in nature – but also the forces that directly fight against such principles. This is because the reality of the founding is that out of the fifty-five (55) founding fathers, forty-one (41) were slave owners. This is why we, as a nation, need to abolish the prisoner exception.

To pay “people pretty much nothing to work jobs they have to do in a place they can’t leave” (Bartley & Washington, 2023) can rightfully be characterized as a form of slavery; however, this is precisely the model applied by the U.S. prison system. Individuals receive little pay for mandatory labor in a confined environment. Why is that? Mainly, it is because the 13th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which is renowned for outlawing slavery, has a provision within Section 1 known as the prisoner exception. The section explicitly declares that the U.S. will have “[n]either slavery or involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime” (Constitution. Congress, n.d.) effectively legalizing the use of slavery as a form of punishment and establishing a practice that continues in the contemporary prison model. After all, that was the intention of Southern states, as it provided them with a means to substitute all their lost ‘free labor’. This also explains why the 13th Amendment did not bring an end to systemic racial violence. Several minority groups are disproportionately incarcerated and forced to work for negligible wages, which is exemplified by African Americans during the era of Jim Crow by the implementation of discriminatory laws known as the ‘Black Codes’ (Foner, 2020). The grand prize of the Civil War – the 13th Amendment – had a byproduct that was a form of contemporary slavery. This is the primary change the U.S. must implement to end the violence that the establishment of slavery initially caused.

Free American citizens are not directly exposed to the coercive conditions of their prisons firsthand, but they might empathize with the experience of being compelled to work in occupations they despise or endure unfavorable working conditions because their healthcare and family’s healthcare are dependent on their employment. As early as 1867, groups in the United States began advocating for the abolition of the prisoner exemption. This can be observed in “The National Anti-Slavery Standard, an abolitionist journal published in New York City” (Foner, 2020). However, despite the U.S. government’s familiarity with closely related issues, it has currently neglected and forgotten this matter. Consider the U.S. Supreme Court case U.S. v. Reynolds (1914), which declared the Alabama Peonage Act unconstitutional due to the possibility that the contractually required work could be harsher than the initial prison labor. The legislation permitted individuals to pay off the fines of someone convicted of a misdemeanor to free said convict on the condition that they now work for them to pay off their debt, thus pimping out convicts for personal gain (Annenberg Classroom, 2019).

Or even take the Soviet Union’s Corrective Labor Camps (ITLs), commonly referred to as ‘gulags’, that had a penal labor rate of 73% and 27% free labor (Gregory, n.d.). They have a notorious reputation for their coercive conditions, intending to increase productivity by providing better living conditions for ‘good’ laborers. Similarly to the U.S. prison system, they also provided monetary compensation to the offenders as a form of ‘reward’ (Borodkin & Ertz, n.d.). During the time of the gulags, the currency conversion from U.S. dollars to Soviet Union rubles was “4 rubles… [for every] 1 U.S. dollar”. The daily earnings of convicts averaged around 2 rubles per day, which is comparable to the earnings of contemporary U.S. inmates (International Monetary Fund, 1950). In the United States, the average hourly wage is 52 cents, excluding necessary maintenance duties like laundry, kitchen labor, and mopping, which are deemed vital for prison operations in certain states (Bartley & Washington, 2023). The U.S. prison system is further exposed as hypocritical due to the well-known ‘Red Scare’ it experienced as well as the Supreme Court verdict in U.S. v. Reynolds (1914). These events assert that the U.S. federal and state governments deem slavery acceptable only when practiced by themselves. So, what is the rationale behind the existence of the ‘prisoner exception’?

The ‘prisoner exception’ origination can be attributed to Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826), who viewed prison labor as a means of deterring crime (Foner, 2020). Nevertheless, research suggests that the connections and correlations between laws and society often contradict deterrence theory. Deterrence practices and tactics are ineffective in several scenarios, including when an individual does not know the penalties or laws, holds fatalistic views and beliefs, or engages in substance misuse by abusing drugs and/or alcohol. However, the primary justification for abolishing the prisoner exception does not exclusively rely on the ineffectiveness of deterrence theory. Individuals with firsthand experience of the prison system present the most compelling argument. Prison labor encompasses a diverse range of tasks, including the production of furniture for educational institutions, the manufacturing of license plates, engagement in industrial jobs, undertaking asbestos-related work, and fulfilling any other responsibilities necessary for the maintenance of the prison facility. According to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), prison labor in the U.S. generates $2 billion worth of goods and $9 billion worth of labor, making it a significant but often overlooked part of the economy. “Now[,] the problem is not that prisoners are not being paid fairly[;] the problem is [that] they are not paid enough to live” (Bartley & Washington, 2023). Upon arrival, authorities confiscate all personal possessions and provide inmates with a single bar of soap. Additional hygiene products, such as shampoo and conditioner, must be purchased through the ‘prison commissary’, which functions as the prison store. Although it may look insignificant to us outside, it becomes crucial when one must maintain his appearance and image for court. Especially since humans tend to pass judgment based on initial observations, this can be a significant problem when it comes to the judge and jury developing bias. In addition to requiring inmates to pay commissions, we also expect them to accumulate savings for their post-prison lives. The U.S. prison system fails to provide meaningful assistance, as most prisons deduct money from convicts’ cents-an-hour paychecks for an array of reasons, such as restitution, court fines and fees, and room and board expenses, among other things. The conditions in Alabama state prisons remain substandard, prompting their inmates to engage in five strikes over the past decade. The most recent strike in 2022 witnessed many prisoners refusing to work in mess halls, factories, and trash crews. The mortality rate in Alabama’s prisons exceeds the national average by 1½ (Bartley & Washington, 2023).

This is where the infamous prison side hustles enter the picture because even in a capitalist prison society, entrepreneurship, and creativity are the ways to make ends meet – to sustain oneself financially. Many people treat side hustles as a form of currency. Inmates who have been in and out of prison charge for legal advice they’ve gathered through all their hearings, while others rely on skills like hair styling (braiding and curling), tattooing, and so on. However, the consequences of side hustles can be severe, with certain activities classified as felonies (Bartley & Washington, 2023). So, struggling to meet basic financial needs can extend the duration of your sentence. The U.S. system sets prisoners up to be in an extremely difficult position upon release, knowing the transition out of prison life comes with the expenses for clothing, food, and a place to stay almost from the get-go for most individuals, despite the ironic fact that their initial incarceration was due to a lack of financial resources. If the objective is to deter crime, then the research clearly demonstrates people need to get out of prison with a certain degree of support - at least if we want them to successfully reintegrate into society. The idea that individuals commit crimes because they are bad people who possess inherent moral flaws is false. It would be illogical to disregard the influence of one’s own material conditions, such as financial insecurity, inadequate healthcare or mental health services, the absence of positive role models, a limited education, or even feelings of senselessness and hopelessness, on his behavior. Currently, US prisons do not provide employment opportunities that enable offenders to acquire skills that apply to the free world or make them less likely to re-offend. This is why U.S. convicts continue to commit crimes in prison because of the deplorable living conditions, as they are driven by a desire to improve their circumstances. These people are not failing society; society is failing them.

So, why does the U.S. government hesitate to transition away from the ‘prisoner exception’? A big objection is one by Anne Widdecombe, a British politician, author, and prison minister (justice minister) in the 1990s who recently evaluated Norway’s renowned Halden prison. She holds the belief that prisons should serve as a harsh environment that serves as both a deterrent and a punishment and that the cost of prisons is already high and is only expected to increase as they undergo improvements. Essentially, she is concerned that this is an abuse of taxpayers’ money and a misuse of public funds (OLIROUX TV, 2021).

Yet, prison is expensive, regardless of the prison system. The U.S. prison system is already a large tax-paying expense; however, a humanitarian and rehabilitative-centered approach can achieve the desired results of getting closer to ending crime. A draconian, excessively harsh approach has demonstrably not worked. In terms of expenses, the U.S. government is already wasting money on a failed prison system. The United States has the world’s largest prison population per capita, with a high reoffence rate. This is why Halden Prison in Norway is the epitome of a way other nations have been able to afford to put such humanity into practice for their incarcerated citizens. The prison was built in 2010 as a groundbreaking experiment, becoming Norway’s second-largest prison designed not to look nor feel like a prison while still being a maximum-security prison (OLIROUX TV, 2021). Prisoners do not need constant reminders they are in prison through poor conditions and bars when prison guards, the system of due process, and confinement to a location and schedule not of their will are enough reminders. Thick glass replaces the absence of bars, and each cell features a private bathroom and television. There are options for conjugal visits with spouses or partners two times a week in a private room, with no restrictions on the possibility of sex. Halden has an escape rate of 0% and 3–4 prison suicides in its first 10 years of operation (2010–2020), which is astonishing compared to countries like the U.K. and U.S. rates (OLIROUX TV, 2021). Their reoffending and recidivism rates are also shockingly lower at 25% when it was around 80/70% in the 1970s–the 80s (OLIROUX TV, 2021), a little higher than the U.S.‘s average of 60% in 2021, with many states hitting those percentages now (Insider News, 2020). The Norwegian prison system’s living conditions offer medical facilities (including a specialist rehab unit), with a dentist coming once or twice a week, and the ability to go shopping together in small groups for ingredients, helping to teach how to cook while finding a way to mix in normal society. They even have an emphasis on keeping parental connections with a ‘daddy in prison’ course, which, if they pass, allows them access to the prisons’ ‘visiting homes’ where they can stay together with their entire immediate family over weekends (OLIROUX TV, 2021).

Frankly, the average U.S. citizen lives a worse life than Norwegian prisoners do, and the reaction should not be to worsen the prisoner’s situation but to recognize how the U.S. treats its citizens who have not committed crimes, let alone the ones who have. Norway’s prison systems are based on the idea of rehabilitation, with their guards dually acting as social workers. They offer workshops ranging from car mechanics to creative workshops, including musical ones, where convicts can learn not only how to express themselves but also the technical side of the equipment and the creation process. Even professional radio producers visit once a month to help the prisoners produce a broadcast where they can speak to the nation about their grievances about life in prison (OLIROUX TV, 2021).

Or even look at Finland’s ‘Open Prison’ system, which has no cell blocks but rather dormitories with inmates coming and going in their own cars. They run their prisons on a normality principle that prisoners should be treated equally and have the same access to services and rights as any other citizen (Insider News, 2020). Finland has been named the ‘happiest and safest country in the world’ in recent years, with their students enjoying generous public benefits like universal health care, subsidized daycare for children, and free college tuition. Their reoffence rates are one of the lowest in Europe, at around 33.33% (keep in mind the U.S.'s 60% rate). Finland has Hämeenlinna Prison, which was modeled on the U.S. style of prison still in use. People regard it as a museum, a 19th-century relic that serves as a cautionary tale to avoid repeating mistakes (Insider News, 2020).

The solution is not just to import a humane prison system into the current U.S. society. The Scandinavian countries mentioned are socially democratic. A factor in the efficiency of their countries’ prison systems is their welfare state. Suppose these ‘luxurious’ prisons are an option in a current U.S. society where citizens are still struggling (high homelessness, crime, and health issue rates). In that case, struggling citizens will rationally commit crimes to escape into a better situation. That is why it is important to note that Norway and Finland are not fluke countries, but rather countries with humane punishment systems that work well in rehabilitating healthy prisoners. There are many ways to go about modifying a prison system, all varying in expense and results. The U.S. style of cell blocks, arranged in a radial floor plan, is ineffective. Especially when combined with President Joe Biden’s lack of follow-through with his criminal justice policy, which would have restricted solitary confinement – an unusually cruel form of punishment still common in U.S. prisons (Bartley & Washington, 2023). Crime is not a single-solution type of problem, and legalized prison slavery is not just immoral; it is not part of the solution and clearly not effective when compared to effective prison systems.

The solution is to figure out what kind of system of punishment is correct. Rehabilitation has the hand over incarceration, especially in reintegrating ex-convicts back into society appropriately. There is a difference between justice and revenge; hence, the saying ‘an eye for an eye makes the world go blind’, is a phrase used against theories of punishment known as retributivism theories (Benjamin, 2016). The punishment for a crime should be imprisonment, where you lose your freedom and are unable to make your own decisions. This alone is a strong enough theory of consequential punishment – “punishment justified in discouraging effectiveness” (Benjamin, 2016). The emphasis should be on reparative theories that focus on restitution and restorative justice (Benjamin, 2016). A reason Norway is so focused on rehabilitation is because they have done away with the death penalty and life sentences; every prisoner will be reentering society at some point (Benjamin, 2016).

Upon their release, convicts will relocate next door. Given that their children will attend the same school as yours, why advocate for harsh punishments? U.S. citizens should be advocating for better conditions for themselves, but it is important not to forget about their voteless convict and ex-convict populations. The answer to injustice should be justice. As long as the prisoner exception clause is in the 13th Amendment, the U.S. prison system will never be about rehabilitation.