As some Civil Rights and Political Leaders are advocating a new civil rights agenda and saluting certain Supreme Court victories, and speaking against some setbacks, the United States has once again surpassed its own world record for incarcerating the highest percentage of its population, with African Americans and Hispanics being the largest incarcerated.
One out of every 32 adults is in prison, in jail, on probation, or on parole. But the crisis of mass incarceration is not felt evenly in the United States: Race defines every aspect of the criminal justice system, from police targeting, to crimes charged, and rates of conviction. African-American men between the ages of 20 and 39 account for nearly one third of all sentenced prisoners.
Over the last four decades, the explosion of the prison population in the United States paralleled the stagnation in the global economy. In the early 1970s, the United States and the G7 nations began implementing neoliberal policies, moving production from the North to the global South, pushing entire sectors of workers in the United States out of the economy. As the economic role of the working class in the United States shifted from manufacturing to staffing a rising service industry, African American workers faced staggering rates of unemployment. The mid-1970s is also the first period when the incarceration rate in the United States began to rise, due to the war on drugs, combined with despaired laws and sentencing guidelines. Further doubling the prison population every decade after.
It may surprise some people that as the number of people without jobs increases, the number of working people actually increases-they become prison laborers. Everyone inside has a job. There are factories in many prisons across the United States. Prisoners do everything from textile work and construction, to manufacturing and service work. Prisoners make shoes, clothing, and detergent; they do dental lab work, recycling, metal production, and wood production; they operate dairies, farms, and slaughterhouses.
Rooted in Slavery
To understand the conditions that have allowed such an exploitative industry to develop, we have to look at the origin of the United States prison system itself. Before the abolition of slavery there was no real prison system in the United States. Punishment for crime consisted of physical torture, referred to as corporal or capital punishment. While the model prison in the United States was built in Auburn, New York in 1817, it wasn’t until the end of the Civil War, with the official abolition of slavery, that the prison system took hold.
In 1865, the 13th Amendment officially abolished slavery for all people except those convicted of a crime and opened the door for mass criminalization. Prisons were built in the South as part of the backlash to Black Reconstruction and as a mechanism to re-enslave Black workers, especially young Black men. In the late 19th-century South, an extensive prison system was developed in the interest of maintaining the racial and economic relationship of slavery.
Louisiana’s famous Angola Prison illustrates this history best. In 1880, this 8000-acre family plantation was purchased by the state of Louisiana and converted into a prison. Slave quarters became cell units. Now expanded to 18,000 acres, the Angola plantation is tilled by prisoners working the land-a chilling picture of modern day chattel slavery.
Black Codes and Convict Leasing
When slavery was legally abolished, a new set of laws called the Black Codes emerged to criminalize legal activity for African Americans. Through the enforcement of these laws, acts such as standing in one area of town or walking at night, for example, became the criminal acts of “loitering” or “breaking curfew,” for which African Americans were imprisoned. As a result of Black Codes, the percentage of African Americans in prison grew exponentially, surpassing whites for the first time.
“At no time do we condone wrongness on either side of the wall”
Minister Richard P. Burton, Sr.
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