In 1865, the Thirteenth Amendment officially abolished slavery throughout the entirety of the United States. However, this amendment contains a very dangerous loophole that has left room for the wrongful imprisonment and exploitation of inmates. Although slavery is technically illegal, the amendment states that slavery is perfectly lawful “as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted”.
The United States has the highest rate of incarceration in the world despite being coined “the land of the free”. Often times, inmates have been convicted of non-violent crimes, often drug related. Additionally, Black individuals are five times more likely to be convicted and sent to prison than whites who have committed similar crimes. According to statistics provided by the NAACP:
- If African Americans and Hispanics were incarcerated at the same rates as whites, prison and jail populations would decline by almost 40%.
- African Americans and whites use drugs at similar rates, but the imprisonment rate of African Americans for drug charges is almost 6 times that of whites.
The severity of these racial disparities increased dramatically following Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan’s strict “war on drugs” policy, which targeted America’s Black population. One of Nixon’s political aides, John Ehrlichman, later admitted,
“The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I’m saying. We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”
Despite admitting to wrongfully targeting and unfairly stereotyping Black people, the damage has already been done and those demographics are still suffering. White people in power are still exploiting Americans of color.
So how does slavery fit into all of this?
It’s simple: Prison Labor. Working in harsh conditions for little to no pay, inmates are forced to perform rigorous labor with the threat of severe punishment, as far as solitary confinement. Disturbingly enough, many southern prisons such as Angola and Mississippi State Penitentiary used to be plantations that relied on slave labor! So in theory, these former plantations continued to operate after slavery was abolished, just using a different type of slave: the inmate.
Many large corporations use inmates as a cheap source of labor to produce or harvest products, often hiding behind the label “fair trade” or “made in America”. Those labels hide the truth from consumers, leading them to believe that they are supporting a business that advocates for the well-being of others and human rights. As a matter of fact, inmate labor is cheaper than slave labor because the corporations do not have a need to keep the inmates safe and healthy.
Wal-Mart – Company policy states that “forced or prison labor will not be tolerated by Wal-Mart,” basically every item in their store has been supplied by third-party prison labor factories. Wal-Mart purchases its produce from prison farms.
BP (British Petroleum) – BP spilled 4.2 million barrels of oil into the Gulf coast, and used a group of almost exclusively African-American inmates to clean up the toxic spill. This both put inmates in danger and did nothing to help fishermen who were now out of work because of the spill. BP’s decision to use prisoners instead of hiring local workers of the Gulf community was an outrage, but the oil company did nothing to make amends.
Those are only two of hundreds of corporations exploiting inmates for cheap labor.
Private Prisons are also at fault for the dramatic increase in incarceration rates. I was surprised and nauseated when I learned that two-thirds of private prisons have “lock-up quotas”. These prisons seek to fill all empty beds so that taxpayer dollars aren’t “being wasted”. However, this leaves room for law enforcement to abuse their power and for thousands of Americans to be wrongfully imprisoned. Taking into account the rate at which Black citizens are incarcerated compared to whites, it is clear that the individuals being wrongly incarcerated are predominantly Black. Once in prison, many rights held as an American citizen are revoked such as voting. With a large demographic of non-white citizens unable to vote, the perpetual cycle of conservative, rich, old white men in office never seems to end. Our representatives cannot represent the people if all citizens cannot vote.
This issue is highly complex and cannot possibly be covered in its entirety within one post. However, I do encourage anyone curious or appalled by what they read today to continue your research and learn what you can do to end this institutionalized slavery and injustice. Thank you.
Until next post,
*featured image belongs to Return to Now (returntonow.net)