While the Thirteenth Amendment abolished slavery, it simultaneously allowed for one exploitable clause: prisoners were exempt from the law preventing “involuntary servitude.” Since its ratification, the Amendment essentially “reinvented slavery,” as one writer for The Atlantic described the introduction of prison labor following slavery’s abolishment.
At best, it’s an underreported secret that state legislatures across the South have either employed inmates in the past or continue to do so. One particularly disturbing anecdote from Samuel Sinyangwe, an activist who investigates police violence, about his visit to the Lousiana Capitol stands out as an example of how prison labor has become slavery reincarnate.
“I noticed that all the people serving food, cleaning, printing papers IN THE STATE LEGISLATURE are prisoners,” Sinyangwe wrote in the now viral Twitter thread. “There was also a correctional guard ‘overseeing’ them. A white man. Overweight. It was straight out of a movie on slavery.”
Sinyangwe also described how the governor’s mansion in Louisana was staffed by inmates, which as it turns out, Hillary Clinton might know a thing or two about.
In her 1996 book, It Takes A Village, the former First Lady of Arkansas describes, quite problematically, the “longstanding tradition” of allowing inmates to work at the governor’s mansion.
“I had defended several clients in criminal cases, but visiting them in jail or sitting next to them in court was not the same as encountering a convicted murderer in the kitchen every morning,” Clinton wrote. “I was apprehensive, but I agreed to abide by tradition until I had a chance to see for myself how the inmates behaved around me and my family.”
Sure, there’s nothing illegal about Clinton’s admission, but it errs on the side of ethically questionable given the disproportionate number of black men who are incarcerated in America. What is perhaps most astonishing is that Clinton saw nothing wrong with the “tradition” that “kept down costs.” Of course, it keeps down costs, prisoners are not paid and Clinton did not even challenge that.
Predictably, the excerpt prompted immediate ire on Twitter.
Obviously, the Clintons were not the only first family to live in a governor’s mansion staffed by inmates. But, the excerpt stands in stark contrast to the progressive persona Clinton sought to cultivate throughout the campaign.