Slavery as punishment for crime?

Back in the Why was a constitutional ammended needed to ban booze but not drugs? thread, the subject got hijacked to the question of slavery, and in response to this quote-

-I then asked:

I got this response:

To which I said:

And this is as far as it got. I’d still like an answer to the question of whether the Thirteenth Amendment contains a loophole for the reintroduction of slavery.

Bad news: AFAIK, there aren’t any constitutional barriers to doing something like this.

Good news: There are other obstacles, though, such as the fact that society would probably never tolerate something like this. Also, how are you going to keep the slaves from killing their masters and escaping? They’d have to be under police supervision, which would probably increase the cost to the point where it would be cheaper just to hire people the normal way.

I think that the prohibition against “cruel and unusual punsishment” would prevent chattel slavery, except for perhaps very serious felonies. Also, a key part of standard slavery systems is that children of slaves are slaves. This is prohibited by the Constitution, regardless of the crimes of the parents.

Keeping them as slaves would be a bad idea, you’d still have to feed, house, and watch them. I would suggest instead of slavery, we harvest their organs.

Most prisoners value the opportunity to work, especially if they can do it outside. You could make it voluntary, the inmate signs a contract that gives the buyer ownership for a certain period of time. What would be the incentive for the slaves to not kill their owners or try to escape? Well, first I would not allow private ownership of convicts with violent histories, or if I did would require those who bought them to buy liability insurance for them and to show that they are providing adequate security to prevent their escape. Secondly, I would make the penalty for attempted escape to be an extended sentence, all of which has to be spent in jail. Third, I would allow the slave to choose to return to jail to serve out the remainder of their sentence at any time, the buyer would be given a refund proportional to the amount of time the slave had left on their contract - i.e. buy a 5 year contract for $20,000, if the slave decides he’d rather go back to jail three years later the buyer gets $8000 back (the government would still profit, as they could be making interest on that $20,000 initial payment those three years).

This would greatly reduce the number of people in prison, probably be better for rehabilitation than the current system, and in no way makes life worse for the prisoner.


Let me repeat, stunningly bad.

(1) Setting up unfree labor in competition with free labor is not a good idea generally, above all with state guarantuees for practical and moral reasons.

(2) The population of our prisons (largley black) and our recent history of slavery and post-slavery denial of civil rights makes this a highly problematic moral issue.

(3) Prisoners reetain certain basic rights. Problems of private abuse of the prisoner are evidently going to appear. Ergo, the program would undoubtedly require extensive supervision. And of course, the state is liable, I am sure, for injuries etc. sustained.

No, I think that this program would be a nightmare all around.

But, I’ve been wrong before.

(Aside to Ryan: per Orlando Patterson’s Slavery and Social Death (1981?), a quite interesting examination of slave systems around the world, the key factor in slave systems was the ‘death’ of the slave, socially. I.e. in legal terms the slave died as a human being. Passing status on to children is not a necessary condition in this case. Or so the argument goes. Quite interesting.)

I admit it’s a very radical idea, and unlikely to be implemented in today’s cultural climate. It’s an interesting idea to consider, though.

Yes, this would have a large impact on the economy. If we figure half the people in prison today qualify for contract slavery and are willing to do it, we’d have an extra million people in the workforce - I don’t think it would be that many (at least not at first, I’ll get to that later) but I’ll work with the million for convenience. This is a nation of 300 million people. Considering that every job given to a slave would be displacing one free worker, that would not raise the unemployment rate by as much as 1%. Considering that it’s been twice what it is now without devastation to the economy, I don’t think that would be a problem. Though some new companies might set up their business model relying wholly on slave labor, there would not be enough available for existing large corporations to replace a significant percentage of their workforce with slaves. Since the owner would be responsible for providing housing, food, and medical care for their property, it would be unprofitable to use slaves for some low-paying part-time jobs, so some of those would be available for the free even.

Since giving up the concept of race, this is a non-issue to me. If the skin color of modern slaves corresponds in any way to those of past slaves, it doesn’t really mean anything.

They would keep those rights, and I doubt private abuse of prisoners would be as big as a problem as modern institutional abuse of prisoners. Who in their right mind would abuse a slave they paid a significant amount of money for, knowing that he might say ‘Fuck this shit, I’m going back to the pen’, after you have invested money providing what the state requires for slaves, i.e. housing, insurance, etc., as well as whatever job training you chose to give? Abuse of slaves would be as punishable as abuse of prisoners today, though perhaps harder to cover up and with bigger financial incentive not to.

Nope, in my original post I mentioned that the owner would be liable for providing insurance for the slaves, this would include medical as well as liability. This would have the side effect of bringing more business to the insurance industry (OK, my wife works for State Farm, I probably couldn’t afford a slave but I’d like to reap SOME benefits 8^) ).

Why exactly? I’m honestly interested in what future developments would come about after the implementation of such a program. Here’s some of what I see.

Immediate Effects - Government saves huge amounts of money as jail populations drop and the private sector takes over a good deal of inmate management. Criminals are taught a trade, and removed from the presence of more violent criminals.

Secondary Effects - More of the population becomes productive, so more is produced. Prices drop, the U.S.A. is better able to compete with foreign nations in some industries we were lagging behind in due to lack of cheap labor. Standard of living increases as many products and services become more affordable due to slave labor. Economy should grow rapidly and more jobs are made available, since factories will be needed to be built or redesigned, guards and educators will be needed for slaves, new forms of insurance are sold, and I’m sure there would be many unexpected industries that would benefit because of developments that are only obvious in hindsight.

Long Term Effects - The stigma attached to having done time will become more complicated - some will probably be proud to be unqualified for slavery due to their violent history. Former slaves will be seen differently by both free and imprisoned people. Some will be trained in advanced trades, as the owner will want to get the most out of their slave - buy a 20 year contract? It would be better to spend ten years of that training them in medicine and then having a doctor guaranteed to work for you for the next ten years, at a fraction of the cost. That’s an extreme case, but I’m sure a large portion of the slaves, probably the majority, would NOT be used for unskilled labor for these reasons. Ex-slaves would probably be very desirable employees, since many criminals come from an economically disadvantaged background this would be a very good thing.

I can also see some negative side-effects. There will be companies lobbying their congressmen to make more crimes require hard time, to increase the supply of slaves. Law enforcement agencies will probably get lots of donations from companies that rely heavily on slave labor. If the lifestyle of your typical slave is good enough, some people may be encouraged to go to prison to have the opportunity to become one. Since many criminals are in jail because of addiction problems, more money will be spent on learning ways to make addicts functional, this could be good or bad depending on how they deal with it.

Yeah but the 13th says that slavery can only be used as punishment. That would mean that children are automatically exempt.


I’ll repeat, this idea is not just stunningly bad, its ludicrously bad. The more I look at it, the worse it gets.

First, let me suggest that you stop examining this in a moral and historical vacuum. Such systems are not unknown, historically. We have everything from the Roman Republic to the Stalinist Gulags to modern China to even British or Souther US history etc. to give us examples of the reality of implementation. None, that I can think of are encouraging.

Second, you need to examine the whole raft of economic assumptions, many quite contradictory, which you are making to justify this. I will attempt to address this below.

It would be advisable not to take the present economy as a permanent benchmark.

You need to think of this in terms of specific industries and probably regions. The effect will not be on an abstract national level.

The problems we have here are the following.
(1) Moral – the United States indeed all the wealthy nations have taken a specific stance that this very system is a violation of human rights. See China. Forced labor. Of course, morality can change, but one may wish to think about the implications even if one does not care personally. I personally am morally opposed.
(2) Economic
(a) perverse incentives: Rendering imprisonment profitable is likely to create perverse incentives to imprison more people for the sake of having labor. While the Justice system may withstand such, historically it is quite clear that such incentives, esp. if slave labor is quasi-competitive (in terms of sale to the market, assuming as is likely from historical examples that negative externalities will not be priced in), can become corrupting.
(b) pricing and competition: while globally the impact on unemployment may be initially small (ignoring point (a)), we still face the likelihood that large amounts of prison labor will compete with the least skilled segements of the labor force. The very segements which may be presumed to (i) feed the prison population (ii) have lesser economic opportunities (resulting in crime and (i). A perverse effect of creating more crime may be engendered. Especially given the perverse incentives above.
© Externalities / State pricing to the market: Again as mentioned likly to understate real costs in market terms, introducing distortions in the labor market. Why? As you noted in your message, housing and feeding prisoners per modern standards may be relatively expensive and non-competitive. We may expect (a) state leasing prisoners at low prices --liklihood to “sweetheart” contractors (b) cost-cutting abuses. I believe that the Southern states have shown a less-than-brilliant record in their use of chain-gangs for rent.

Interesting. I’m afraid fundamentally wrong. Race continues a lively existance in our society. As I have shown, modern genetics has destroyed the idea that this has any scientific validity in a biological sense.

That does not remove the history of racism nor racial discrimination. People have acted on false beliefs and others have suffered for it. That we can demonstrate that the biological basis for racist beliefs is non-existant does not change the historical facts. E.g. if genetics were to demonstrate that the Jews had no genetic unity, this observation has no impact on the moral problems of the Holocaust and the problems Jews may face today based on similar beliefs.

Morally, the issue remains regardless of the fallaciousness of the biological concept of race.

Well, you may want to ask yourself, who in their right mind would crash an expensive car? Etc.

I do not see the presumption that investment in a slave will prevent abuse. It did not work that way the first time around. I doubt, without extensive oversight, that it would work well the second time around.

There’s no way this would fly. Slaves remain legally charges of the state, even if a renter of prison labor was forced to assume liability, tort law is still going to allow liability to touch the State. I’m certain that this is an unavoidable issue.

Why? See China. Look at some histories of unfree labor.

(a) I doubt trades will be taught. Expensive investment in training is not likely to go to transient labor.
(b) Savings are likely to be exagerated for reasons mentioned above.

This is not the way to render such a result.

Aha, so in fact you are posting using forced labor on an industrial basis. (a) what moral defense for this (b) we now add a new perverse incentive for protection of slave industries against cheap foreign competition.

Moreover, now the USA is placed in the position of having unfree – yes slave labor competing with free labor. Briliant, fucking brilliant. Let’s call this a tiny policy reversal. Let’s just wait for the accolades to roll in from around the world. Perhaps we will then study the Gulags to learn more about how to render slave labor more efficient? Never mind of course that since you are now positing significant industrial use of forced labor.

Goggle. Oh man. I can not bring myself to go further into this. The above relies on a number of false assumptions, including the implicit assumption that foreign trade is somehow depressing standards of living (it may for import competing areas, but then these sectors of the populace would become slave competing.)

Listen, you can not simultaneously posit small effects on the economy and large effects. Slaves segement too small or it is large? Your hypothesis is ignoring vast contradictions.

Ah, now we have 20 year contracts? Let us not forget in this small fantasy that slavery has a history in the United States, one not so easily swept under the carpet.

Again, your assumptions are legion. I point out that your positing significant training of skilled slave labor, while highly unrealistic given historical experience, also raises new issues including competition with skilled free labor. Here the perverse incentives of slave labor’s price differential present even more problems.

Thank god.

Yes, indeedy. And historical experience suggests that if the system is in any way economic (leaving aside the fact that negatives will be exernalized, ergo creating under-pricing) the pressure will be significant.

Take drug crimes. I hazard the opinion most drug users are not addicts in the technical sense of the term but recreational users. Whatever one’s feelings on this, it is clear that

Again, perverse and corrupting incentives in a system which will automatically attract the least moral. Modern day slave owning.

Let’s exclude fantasies from this.

Drug convinctions do not necessarily mean addiction problems, they mean drug usage. See above. More false assumptions.

Immense assumption: (a) drug use among slaves will be discouraged --why not high and happy slaves (b) drug users are addicts © addicts may not be functional given the uses expected from slaves, e.g. physical labor.

I think we can exclude this right way. If research directed towards free persons does not have enough incentives, there is nothing, repeat nothing in what we know of the effects of slave systems to imply that more research will be directed bec. of slaves for the sake of reason!

This idea, in short, is a crock. A morally bankrupt crock.

I don’t know if it doesn’t offer some interesting possibilities.

Think of it as a very precise form of community service. A person (the culprit) commits a crime at the detriment of another person (the victim). They then have to work at the bidding of the victim for a specified period of time to make amends for this. Morally, why is that worse than locking a person up in punishment for their crime.

Obviously this is all from a hypothetical viewpoint.

Interesting debate, but it doesn’t quite address my original question. I wasn’t asking about prison industry, or even convict labor-for-rent, with time limits. I was asking, does the Thirteenth Amendment allow for the existence of people as chattel property? In other words, instead of having blacks imported from Africa as your source of slaves, could convicts be the source of slaves, similar to the Roman practice of being sold into slavery as the punishment for certain crimes?


Yes, I do believe the law in question contains a loophole for slavery. If the criminal bar is lowered any further, say, for being in the same room as a pot-smoker, then this means that society can afford to imprison people on a whim, perhaps because some enterprizing type could see a benefit for privatizing more prisons and using this is a source for free labor on a grand scale. The only thing really preventing, however, is economic competition from already legal low wages and an near endless supply of unemployed people in China and elsewhere.


We don’t have to look past the 20th century to take a look at what happened with forced labor. In many southern states it was permissable to rent out chain gangs for private use. There was quite a cottage industry of prison officals who owned businesses that would rent these convicts out instead of hiring free individuals to do the work. Another interesting thing to note is that most of the southern states required that a prisoner be sentenced to a minimum of 10 years before they became eligable for the forced labor. It was mainly blacks who were sentenced to the full 10 years while whites remained virtually immune.

I don’t have a cite handy this was just something I’ve seen on the History Channel.