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Slave of the State

America boasts of high levels ofliberty and freedom since its abolishment of slavery. According tothe 13thAmendment, all forms of slavery were abolished except that ofprisoners as a constitutional requirement, giving the state the powerto own slaves through prisons. The 19thCentury marks the origin of the concept of slave of the state as abasis for imprisonment. Initially, the blacks were imprisoned forpetty crimes in order to legally use them as slaves in white people’splantations following the abolition of slavery. The state could evenlease prisoners to individuals, companies and even states forslavery. The phrase slave of the state was pronounced in the 1871Ruffin v. Commonwealth in Virginia’s Supreme Court (Wright, 1995).

Thus, for several years prisonershave continued to serve against their will as a form of punishmentfor crimes committed. This explains why America registers high ratesof imprisonment currently despite existence of incarcerationalternatives. Further, the conditions of prisoners enhance slaverysince prisoners are deprived of their essential human rights as a wayof punishment for offences committed. Prisons fail to deliver theircorrectional and rehabilitation functions because of these harshconditions. Further, most American prisons offer harsh sentences tooffenders of petty crimes, and the jails even hold people with drugaddiction and mental health problems (Peak, 2012).

Activists and Prisoners’ Unionsnote these slavery practices in prisons, but their efforts to abolishthis form of slavery are fruitless. For instance, the Prisoners’Union lost the 1977 Jones v. North Carolina Prisoners’ Labour Unioncase in the Supreme Court. In other cases, the names of theoppressive practices are sugarcoated to give the impression thatprisons uphold human rights (Wright, 1995).


Peak, K. J. (2012). Justiceadministration: Police, courts, and corrections management (7th ed.).Upper Saddle River,NJ: Prentice Hall

Wright, P. (1995). “Slaves ofthe state.” Journalof Prisoners on Prisons.