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By Spodek Law Group | February 12, 2023
(Last Updated On: July 28, 2023)

Last Updated on: 28th July 2023, 07:22 pm

Transporting or Importing Prison-Made Goods – 18 U.S.C. § 1761

The United States grapples with a dire mass incarceration problem as it locks up a higher proportion of its population than other developed nations globally. The treatment of inmates has been a contentious topic for many years, but certain regulations are in place to mitigate the situation, such as those related to prison-made goods.

Title 18 U.S. Code 1761 outlaws the importation or transportation of products made entirely or in part by inmate labor across state or international borders, resulting in severe federal consequences. A violation of this law could lead to imprisonment for up to two years, unless specific exceptions are met.

Subsection (b) of the law specifies that it doesn’t apply to farm machinery parts or agricultural commodities, not-for-profit organizations, or products manufactured in federal institutions. Further review of this federal law is necessary to understand it fully.

The Context behind 18 U.S.C. 1761

For generations, the legitimacy and morality of prison labor have been a highly debated topic. Advocates argue that involving inmates in productive work as part of their rehabilitation is a beneficial and constructive measure.

However, opponents of prison labor maintain that it amounts to exploitation, as prisoners typically receive meager compensation for their efforts and enjoy few protections or rights. Moreover, it puts businesses that can’t compete on price with cheap prison labor at a disadvantage.

Furthermore, importing goods made through forced prison labor in foreign countries is also a significant concern. Conditions may be deplorable, and abuses go unchecked, leading to ethical dilemmas.

To address some of these issues and curb the proliferation of prison manufacturing, Congress passed the Ashurst-Sumners Act in 1935, which prohibited the transportation and importation of goods made in prisons, whether within the US or elsewhere. This act was later incorporated into U.S. law as Title 18 U.S.C. 1761.

Over the years, however, several exceptions have been made to this law, and prison manufacturing continues to exist in the United States. As a result, discussions regarding the ethical implications of this practice continue to be a contentious and prevalent subject.

Importing and Transporting Prison-Made Goods: Federal Laws, Penalties, and Defenses

The Law on Prison-Made Goods

In the United States, it is a federal crime to knowingly transport goods or merchandise made by convicts or prisoners in any penal or reformatory institution across state lines or from another country. This law, 18 U.S.C. 1761, ensures that prison-made goods are regulated and that no unlawful misconduct occurs. The law also requires all packages containing such goods to be plainly marked so that their origin and content are easily identifiable.

The term “interstate commerce” is defined as any trade, traffic, commerce, transportation, or communication between two or more states, while “foreign commerce” refers to trade, traffic, commerce, transportation, or communication with another country. This law effectively criminalizes the importation of prison-made goods from other countries into the U.S. or transporting prison-made goods across state lines.

Exceptions to the Law

Title 18 U.S.C. 1761 includes several exceptions to the prohibition on importing and transporting goods made by prisoners. These exceptions include goods made by prisoners on parole, probation, or supervised release, as well as those made in penal or reformatory institutions without defining those institutions. Agricultural commodities and farm machinery parts are also exempt, likely to encourage agriculture during the Depression era and beyond. Goods made in state or federal prisons for government use or non-profit organizations, such as for charitable purposes, are also allowed. Lastly, prisoners involved in work pilot projects designated by the Director of the Bureau of Justice Assistance and FPI-approved work pilot projects outside the U.S. can produce goods without violating the law.

Penalties for Violations

Violating 18 U.S. Code 1761 is a federal felony offense, punishable by a fine of up to $250,000 and up to two years in federal prison. Goods transported in violation of this law may be seized and condemned.

If you are accused of illegally importing or transporting prison-made goods, you may have legal defenses available to you. The most common defenses include demonstrating a lack of intent or qualifying for one of the legal exceptions.

Demonstrating a lack of intent means showing that you were not aware that the goods transported were made by prisoners. For example, if you own a trucking company and transport goods across state lines without knowing that prisoners made the merchandise, you may claim a lack of knowledge or intent as a valid defense.

If the goods transported or imported qualify for one of the legal exceptions, such as agricultural products or products made through an authorized program, you may have the charges dropped.

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