When does prison labor become slave labor? When you have a system of for-profit prisons and draconian sentencing laws for nonviolent or victimless crimes, and then you hire out that prison population for involuntary servitude that profits corporations. When does slave labor become black servitude? When a disproportionate number of inmates pressed into service are African-American.
In other words, when you have a system like the one in the U.S., which imprisons a greater percentage of its population than any other nation in the world and whose prison population is disproportionately black.
On the Gulf Coast, the authority of a multinational corporation now supersedes the authority of state and even federal law, and cheap prison slave labor is being used to clean up the mess.
Keep in mind that for a time, these workers were prohibited from wearing masks or respirators, and that workers cleaning up after the Exxon Valdez oil spill suffered an extreme mortality rate, as we explained here. (Workers are now being permitted to wear their own personal masks “if they choose,” reports CNN.)
The magazine The Nation explains the emergence of black involuntary servitude on the Gulf Coast:
In the first few days after BP’s Deepwater Horizon wellhead exploded, spewing crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico, cleanup workers could be seen on Louisiana beaches wearing scarlet pants and white t-shirts with the words “Inmate Labor” printed in large red block letters. Coastal residents, many of whom had just seen their livelihoods disappear, expressed outrage at community meetings; why should BP be using cheap or free prison labor when so many people were desperate for work? The outfits disappeared overnight.
Work crews in Grand Isle, Louisiana, still stand out. In a region where nine out of ten residents are white, the cleanup workers are almost exclusively African-American men. The racialized nature of the cleanup is so conspicuous that Ben Jealous, the president of the NAACP, sent a public letter to BP CEO Tony Hayward on July 9, demanding to know why black people were over-represented in “the most physically difficult, lowest paying jobs, with the most significant exposure to toxins.”
Read more at The Nation.