Forced Labor
In the Bayou State

Incarcerated labor is everywhere in Louisiana.

Often invisible to the public, incarcerated people are forced to clean government buildings and fix public roads. They cultivate plantation crops, manufacture soap, and produce garments. The State even relies on incarcerated people to respond to environmental disasters.

We set out to understand forced prison labor in Louisiana. We conducted hundreds of hours of historical and contemporary research. We also interviewed more than 100 currently and formerly-incarcerated people who were sentenced to hard labor.

Most people reported that they wanted to work while incarcerated. They also want--and deserve--dignity in their work. This includes safe working conditions, a fair wage, appropriate training, and opportunities to learn and grow new skills.

Those are not characteristics of prison labor in Louisiana today.

Our findings are undeniable: forced prison labor leads to insecurity and vulnerability, without the promised benefits of rehabilitation, re-entry support, or even profit. It undermines our state’s commitment to fairness and dignity for all.

Photo Credit: Chandra McCormick and Keith Calhoun

The Thirteenth Amendment, ratified in 1865, banned slavery and involuntary servitude, except “as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.” The Louisiana Constitution also permits involuntary servitude as punishment for a crime.

After the Civil War, the State used this “punishment exception” to build a penal system that re-enslaved freed Black people by convicting them of newly-created crimes and sentencing them to hard labor. The State and former slaveholders profited from this system, known as convict leasing. As intended, these practices disproportionately harmed Black people.  

Today, Black people are disproportionately incarcerated and forced to work for the State. This offers a chilling lesson to the people of Louisiana: anyone can be made a slave or servant.

In a state that values fairness and justice, all labor must be voluntary. If one chooses to work, that work must be safe, fairly compensated, and purposeful.

"You might well say we built the penitentiary up."

Alvin Reliford, 20+ years at Angola
PHOTO CREDIT: Giles Clarke

The End Plantation Prisons Project is a partnership of the Promise of Justice Initiative, Decarcerate Louisiana, and Professor Andrea Armstrong at Loyola University New Orleans, College of Law.