Huckabee’s Not the Only Republican Interested in Slavery

Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee turned some heads last week with a comment that nonviolent criminals should be forced to “pay back” their crimes, stopping just short of saying they should be enslaved, citing the Bible as his authority. The comments took place in the context of a conservative Iowa radio show, but they illustrate a larger and troubling movement within Republican extremists that supports the exploitation of Americans who have committed crimes, and, in some cases, the abuse of undocumented residents as well. While the Left gasped at Huckabee’s comments, however, they shouldn’t been surprised: Because the situation he was describing is already happening in the U.S., and moreover, it’s actually perfectly legal — at least in some circumstances.

The case at hand in the interview was one involving embezzlement, in which a bookkeeper was ordered to pay restitution in addition to being sentenced to 20 years in prison. Host Jan Mickelson opined that repaying the stolen funds wasn’t sufficient — instead, he said, she should be forced to pay back “twofold, fourfold,” through labor to the state if she couldn’t afford the compensation. Huckabee seemed to nod along, adding that the “stigma” of prison sentencing should serve as an lesson to people considering theft and other nonviolent offenses. Michelson namechecked the 13th Amendment in the discussion, and, depressingly enough, it was a wise rhetorical move, because it justifies the use of prison labor in exactly the way the two men specified.

The 13th Amendment, adopted in 1865, abolished slavery in the United States, but with a key caveat: Involuntary servitude could still be used as punishment for a crime. That fine print was used as a justification for practices like convict leasing, which became a thinly-masked iteration of slavery in the South after the war, when suspiciously large numbers of black people were arrested and then “leased” to plantations to generate funds for states left impoverished after fighting the Civil War. Today, prison labor takes place within prisons, with prisoners making a wide variety of products (including, until very recently, cheeses for Whole Foods) and working to keep facilities operational — prisoners grow produce, cook, clean, and have other maintenance jobs. Some are also effectively loaned out to corporations interested in cheap sources of labor, and for-profit prison companies like Corrections Corporation of America turn a strong profit on the practice.

This work is involuntary in some states, with prisoners obligated to take on jobs, even though they may be allowed to choose from a range of several options. And it’s all perfectly reasonable under the 13th Amendment; changing the way involuntary labor is treated in the Constitution would require another amendment and likely a bitter fight, because prison labor is incredibly profitable and it saves the state a great deal of money while generating funds for prisons. Prisoners are typically paid a pittance for their labor, even when it’s dangerous — as in the case of firefighters, for example. That might not be chattel slavery, where people are bought, sold and traded, but it’s still a form of forced labor.

What the two men were talking about, however, had bigger and very troubling implications: It’s bad enough to justify the use of prison labor, but they seemed to imply that people who can’t “pay back” their criminal deeds should be imprisoned and forced to work it off. That sounds rather a lot like debtor’s prison, which has been ruled illegal in multiple Supreme Court cases, in decisions determining that inability to pay court fines, fees, and restitution should not result in imprisonment. Cases of what effectively amounts to debtor’s prison in the United States are growing, despite the efforts of groups like the ACLU, and the implications of assertions like Huckabee’s are chilling: Low-income people should become a source of free labor in the United States, because his comments say nothing about compensating prisoners for their work.

The reinstatement of slavery in the United States seems like an impossibility, but in fact, some citizens are already in a state of de facto enslavement or indenture, and conservative penal policy wants to expand the number of people in such situations. That’s a troubling trend for a nation that wants to position itself as a global political leader when it comes to liberty and justice for all.

Photo credit: Bureau of Land Management


Siyus Copetallus
Siyus Copetallus3 years ago

Thank you for sharing.

Rose Becke
Rose Becke3 years ago


Denise D.
Denise D3 years ago

I'm not surprised Huckabee is for prison labor. Of course most corporations want cheap labor costs. What does surprise me is how often it is happening and how little most people know of it!

Emily M.
Emily M3 years ago

Huckabee didn't think this way when he was setting rapists and murderers free to commit more heinous crimes against innocent people.

KelDjabTeCrosse Dosse

@ Sharon T, it reminds me of the wise quote from Mahatma Gandhi — ‘I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.

KelDjabTeCrosse Dosse

Instead of having corporations profit from the labour of these prisoners; how about the profits go to implement programs for victims of crime?

How about it Huckabee, aka Huckleberry Hound?

KelDjabTeCrosse Dosse

That's an articles that makes you ponder.

Of course, we should all be against slavery; but if you push it to the limit, isn't ordering one to pay restitution a form of slavery. So if he is unable to pay; how to you make him right his wrong if you cannot make him work?

I am not taking any position here; just trying to make you think a little deeper.

Paulinha Russell
Paulinha Russell3 years ago

Thank you

Charles Morissette

How is this controversial? America already has slavery in it's prison system. >.>

The controversial part I say is mentioning that he wants this (when it's already there), not the fact that slavery in the US prison system happens. The fact is happens in insanely bad.

sharon Tyson
sharon T3 years ago

Mike Huckabee doesn't sound very Christian to me. I'm afraid Jesus would be appalled.