From plantation to prison: How American capitalism still utilizes forced labor

Akilah Davis Image
Friday, May 26, 2023
From plantation to prison: American capitalism and forced labor
In partnership with the 1619 Project and ABC's Our America, here's a unique look at forced labor in North Carolina prisons.

TILLERY, N.C. (WTVD) -- It takes more than 5,000 acres of land to keep one of the oldest state prisons in North Carolina running.

The Roanoke River Correctional Institution is home to hundreds of male inmates who grow about 10 million pounds of vegetables a year. It's enough to distribute to all 52 correctional facilities across the state and has a fitting nickname.

"The farm is what we call it because that's literally what it is and how it's ran," said James Barbour, who was once incarcerated there. "I'm an ex-convict. I pulled 17 years from 1993 to 2009."

It's a year-round operation of growing, canning and producing 45,000 eggs a day.

"We'd be there from 7 to 3 in the field. Sometimes we'd be there a little extra depending on the time of the year," he said.

Phillip Sykes oversees all corrections facilities statewide. He calls the rehabilitation program life-changing.

"An offender working for correctional enterprises in North Carolina can make up to $35 a week," he said. "I think a lot of offenders who work here had no structure before they came. We want these guys when they leave to not come back. We want to make sure they get job skills they maybe didn't have when they came into prison."

But what's the line between rehabilitation and free labor? It's a question UNC Chapel Hill American Studies Professor Seth Kotch has spent years unpacking. He draws parallels between slavery and modern-day prisons. In fact, he said Roanoke River Correctional Institution used to be a plantation.

"I think it's a really muddy line," he said. "If they are here to steal people's labor, disrupt their community, immiserate them. They're working very well."

The 13th Amendment abolished slavery in America, but it also created a loophole that Kotch said allows for legal enslavement through incarceration. It's also known as forced labor.

"I think prison is less of a solution for crime than it is a response to poverty, but it's not a response to poverty about investment. It's a response that's about punishment and punishment only puts money in certain pockets," he said.

Prison officials call the food grown and delivered there huge tax savings.

"Several years ago it was $3.25 a day. That's what we were able to feed offenders a day which was fresh meat and vegetables off this farm," said Sykes.

Regardless of the math, you can't put a price tag on the imprint left on human beings in the field doing the work. Barbour has been out of prison for years, but still remembers what it was like.

"It was worse for my ancestors than it was for me. I'm doing the same thing my ancestors were doing," he said.

RELATED: Our America: Hidden Stories - The 1619 Project | Watch the Full Episode

ABC Owned Television Stations presents "Our America: Hidden Stories," featuring Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones and ABC Race and Culture reporters across the country.