Illustrations by Hannah Robinson
Over the last few weeks, we have seen that the Black Lives Matter movement has hugely increased momentum and support. The ongoing protests, which were majority peaceful, has already enabled change. With the Minneapolis police being disbanded, the San Francisco police donating some of their budget to the African American community, and police officers being charged with the death of George Floyd and the Breonna Taylor Act, the BLM cause has quickly stacked up notable achievements in just a matter of days.
Yet, among these positives there is an untold injustice — that of prison labour. This issue remains on the sidelines while protesters demand racial justice, police reform, defunding of the police and social equality. Despite the 13th Amendment in the United States criminalising slavery and involuntary servitude, those who have committed a crime themselves are somehow exempt from this rule. Slavery has been reinstituted through prison labour, impacting people of colour the most. Those who are sentenced are expected to work in prison. If they refuse, they are punished through methods including solitary confinement, loss of earned ‘good time’ through good behaviour, and revocation of family visitation.
In this respect, prisoners are forced to work under inhumane conditions, get paid between 90 cents and $4 per day, and have no labour rights. With the “Nelson Mandela Rule” coming into place, one would expect this issue to be resolved, but one would be mistaken. As private prisons in the United States earn billions upon billions in profit from the mass incarceration of its citizens, these profits are simply shared with other private companies with no intention of reform.
This issue extends far into society. McDonald’s uses prisoners to process some of its food and to make uniforms. Starbucks used prison labour to package coffee sold in stores. Whole Foods used to buy their artisan cheeses and fishes from companies that use inmates. These companies are just a notable few on an endless list that profit from the sheer levels of mass incarceration in the United States. While companies showcase solidarity and compassion for the Black Lives Matter Movement, behind the scenes they continue to utilise prison labour to deliver their services and products. Do not be fooled by these companies when they act as if they care about racial injustice.
So before you think by sharing a black square on Instagram, or by educating yourself via books or podcasts that justice has been achieved, recognise that your activism cannot stop there. By going to McDonald’s and eating a Big Mac, you remain complicit in a system of oppression, while you grabbing your morning Starbucks coffee and trying to be organic by going to Whole Foods is just plain ignorance. By purchasing products of them, YOU are contributing to the problem.
Instead, we should boycott these companies. We should not be blind to their hypocrisy when they claim solidarity but profit from the exploitation of disproportionately POC inmates. Instead, find companies that are not ridden with double-standards. Buy products from local shops, eat from independent establishments, spend your money in black-owned businesses and invest in companies that treat their staff like human beings.
It is that simple. Our activism must go beyond our mobile phones and the news cycle. What we purchase is part of our activism too.