By Tess Sohngen, Over-the-Rhine Correspondent 

The 13th Amendment abolished slavery in 1865. Well, most of it.

Slavery can — and does — exist “as a punishment for crime”; a loophole that prisons across the country have taken advantage of since the Civil War. Today, another group has exploited the slavery loophole: capitalist companies.

Across the nation, mainstream companies dipping into the prison labor system include Walmart, Starbucks, Whole Foods, Victoria’s Secret, Proctor & Gamble, McDonald’s, and many more. Despite the number of shops closing, the number of Ohio Penal Industries (OPI) employed prisoners has increased each year from 2011 to 2013, and their profits increased to $7.8 million in 2013. OPI programs pay prisoners an average 35 cents per hour. It’s easy business for these companies: cheap labor, guaranteed workers, and no threat of a union.

Until now. The nationwide prison strike has brought awareness to the low wages and undesirable working conditions be refusing to go to work, which started Sept. 9. The strike spanned 24 states and over 40 prisons, including the Ohio State Penitentiary.

But in Ohio, the system and profits of prison labor are encouraged by law. An Ohio law requires state agencies to purchase OPI goods unless they can find better quality and cheaper versions in the free market. Along with OPI, these four entities (and many more) have benefitted from the prison labor systems in Ohio:


At the Lebanon Correctional Institution, inmates are paid $20 a month in an incentive-based program focused on food service. They are a private company providing meals for prisoners in Ohio and many other states, including Michigan where maggots were found in the food served to inmates. They were also the food providers when a prison riot broke out in Kentucky in 2009 in response to a massive food shortage.

U.S. military

From the Pickaway Correctional Institute alone, 60 inmates are employed in the OPI print shot, sewing and mending attire for the U.S. military. In 2013, the print sector made $63,239 in profits.

Honda distributors

One hundred and fifty (150) inmates at the Ohio Mansfield Correctional Institution made $0.25 to $0.40 per hour building material for Ohio’s Honda distributors, according to a report from 2008. Fifty-nine (59) percent of the prison’s population were African American.

The Ohio State University:

After the garbage leftover from the university’s stadium-packed football games by the efforts of the Zero Waste Ohio Stadium Project, the waste travels to the Southeastern Correctional Complex (SCC) where inmates sort, weight and track the waste. In 2013, Ohio State University won the Game Day Challenge for a 98.5 percent waste diversion. Student volunteers are awarded by having their names entered into a raffle prize, which was a customized OSU jersey. Although the university is not making money off of prison labor, the inmates were the ones who clinched the recycling victory for them.