Slavery Still Exists in the United States

Over the years, the phrase “prison-industrial complex” has been used to describe the state of exploitation of labor in prisons. Popularized by activist and scholar Angela Davis, she defines it as “the overlapping interests of government and industry that use surveillance, policing, and imprisonment as solutions to economic, social, and political problems.” While Davis’ term has gained traction within the last thirty years or so, the complex existed long before the explosion of mass incarceration in the 1990s.

Work has long been important in prisons, but it started as a form of rehabilitation in Auburn State Prison in Pennsylvania. Prisoners here made shoes, and while the work was punishment, it was also an opportunity for people to focus on their wrongdoing and restore their “inner light.” In 1865, after the Thirteenth Amendment was ratified, the prison system became an easy way to exploit the labor of newly-freed African Americans. The amendment provided a loophole for Southern states who found themselves in a downward economic spiral after losing their entire free workforce. As it existed in 1865 and as it exists today, the Thirteenth Amendment reads: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist in the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.

With this newly given permission to continue enslaving people, states rapidly passed new laws that were known as Black codes. These laws, criminalizing Black individuals for vagrancy, loitering, breaking curfew, and more, led to arrests left and right. People were sent to prison and work camps as a result. W. E. B. DuBois famously wrote that, “The slave went free; stood a brief moment in the sun; then moved back again towards slavery.”

Slavery by Another Name

After the Thirteenth Amendment, the convict leasing system exploded. This racist, purposeful business model benefitted all of those involved, except for the alleged offender. In this system, the state rented out imprisoned people to places with highly dangerous working conditions. These businesses were able to make more of a profit because labor was so inexpensive, and the state made money by selling their inmates to the highest bidder. People were no longer discussed as slaves, but instead as criminals who had a punishment to serve.

Ida B. Wells wrote at some length about the cruel structure, describing the convict leasing system as similar to Siberia, and that “Men, women, and children are herded together like cattle in the filthiest quarters and chained together while at work.” Later on, she writes more about the medical neglect and abuse that convicted laborers are subject to, saying that one woman “gave birth to two children, but lost the first one from premature confinement, caused by being tied up by the thumbs and punished for failure to do a full day’s work.”

Convict leasing continued even after the federal government “discovered” in 1903 that it was being used as a way to keep people essentially enslaved. The states got away with it, though, since slavery was still constitutionally allowed and protected in the Constitution. It took another forty years before convict leasing became denounced, and this denunciation came not from moral reflection, but instead as a public relations move to protect the United States from criticism after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Author Douglas Blackman says that:

When President Franklin Roosevelt convened his cabinet to discuss retaliation, the main issue was propaganda and the Japanese ability to effectively embarrass America for the treatment of blacks in the South. Immediately President Roosevelt passed a congressional law criminalizing lynching. Four days after Pearl Harbor, the U.S. attorney general ordered a memorandum that instructed all federal prosecutors to aggressively prosecute all cases of involuntary servitude.

Presidential administrations post-FDR continued this pattern of ignoring the criminal justice system until they saw an opportunity to score political points. Lyndon Johnson began the quasi-covertly racist War on Crime, which later developed into the War on Drugs under Nixon, Reagan, Bush, and Clinton. The War on Drugs was largely rhetorical, at least until the presidency of Bill Clinton.

My last blog post suggested that federal policies can set the tone for many states. Clinton’s passing of so many detrimental criminal justice bills led directly to an increase in mass incarceration. One such bill was the Truth-in-Sentencing Act, which designated that offenders serve at least 75-80% of their sentence before becoming eligible for parole.

The prison-industrial complex is “the overlapping interests of government and industry that use surveillance, policing, and imprisonment as solutions to economic, social, and political problems.”

A deeper investigation of where these laws come from shines a light on the “overlapping interests of government and industry.” The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) brings together politicians and private companies, where businesses can propose new legislation, and politicians often take these proposals straight to Capitol Hill. When these companies have the ability to influence laws, they can pass things that benefit them, subsequently letting them profit. Some groups that participate in ALEC include the American Bail Coalition, CoreCivic (which was formerly known as Corrections Corporation of America, a private prison company), and GEO Group, another private prison company.

Private prisons started out as a way to bring together the government and industries to solve issues in all three areas of Davis’ definition: the economic, the social, and the political. The federal government thought that it was too expensive to operate their own correctional facilities, so they brought in outsiders to do it more efficiently. Initially, it seemed great; a private prison would charge the government a certain amount in a contract, and then they would run everything in the prison for cheaper than the government could. The private company profits from the contract, as well as paying their guards below the standard public rate. The social problem and political problems emerged from the economic. People within prisons were upset about the overcrowding and poor environment that they were experiencing, as were their loved ones on the outside, creating a social problem for the government. Racking up debt isn’t the most effective re-election campaign strategy, so when private prisons offered a way to decrease the amount owed, the government was quick to hop on.

Private prisons quickly became recognized as not nearly as effective in terms of safety and security, but contracts were already signed. In 2016, the Obama administration began to phase out the use of private facilities at the federal level, turning operation responsibilities back to the Bureau of Prisons staff. Private prisons were described as comparing “poorly” to the government’s facilities in a 2016 statement by Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates. This policy shifted in 2017, though, as Attorney General Jeff Sessions directed a reversal of the Obama-era policy.

The change, as ordered by Sessions, was justified by stating that the use of private prisons was a policy since 1997 and that the phasing out “impaired the bureau’s ability to meet the future needs of the federal correctional system.” This change on the federal level, if the Trump administration had kept the Obama administration’s adjustments, could have led to a larger-scale phasing out of private prisons across the country, where over half of the states utilize private prisons. 

One wonders what the impairment was, as the contracts started back in the late 90s as a means to alleviate overcrowding. The First Step Act, as passed by the Trump administration in late 2018, led to the release and shortening of sentences of over 5,000 federal inmates. Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, more people were released, shrinking the population even more. This is all on top of several years of declines in federal prison populations. Perhaps the suggested impairments came not from the Bureau but from organizations who would no longer benefit and profit from private prisons and the labor that they produce.

Zooming in on Indiana

Indiana’s use of private prisons is head and shoulders above other states: since 2000, the private prison population has increased by 313%. And since private prisons operate on the idea of making a profit, they rarely invest much into their facilities; consequently, the ratio of staff to inmates is much higher, since fewer guards are hired. The people who do get hired as guards also tend to be paid less than their public counterparts.

Prison labor is still used as another way to partner with private corporations to generate more profit for both the state and businesses, The Indiana Department of Corrections has its own production branch known as Indiana Correctional Industries. Its website says that “Businesses benefit from a dependable labor pool,” which is really a veiled assurance that they will never run out of incarcerated laborers to exploit, so it serves as a mutually beneficial business investment. Even earlier in 2020, at the beginning of the pandemic, inmates at Miami Correctional Facility in Bunker Hill, Indiana were responsible for making personal protective equipment, like face masks and gowns, for healthcare workers and first responders. These inmates make between 12 and 24 cents an hour. They were not able to utilize any of the equipment they were making.

This exemplifies the medical neglect that can often occur when people are seen as ways to make a profit instead of human beings. In September, it was revealed that sixty inmates contracted the coronavirus in a single weekend. Out of the 3,150 people incarcerated in the Miami Correctional Facility, as of September, only seventy-five had been tested.

Corporate Accountability found that there are two companies using prison labor in Indiana: Kaufmann Engineering and Raine Inc. These are only two of many businesses across the country, though. Tyson chicken is notorious for using prison labor. Many times, manufacturing jobs are not the only type of job that prisoners are used for. Inmates in California are trained as firefighters and sent to battle some of the most dangerous forest fires.

The prison-industrial complex is “the overlapping interests of government and industry that use surveillance, policing, and imprisonment as solutions to economic, social, and political problems.”

The prison-industrial complex and the exploitation of inmates is poisonous to the system, and symptomatic of much larger issues. It allows for the humanity of offenders to be ignored, focusing instead on the potential for profit. It leads to many other big issues in the criminal justice system: overcrowding of prisons, medical neglect, and further abuses. 

The very first step we need to take is outlawing slavery once and for all. A bill about this was introduced in the House earlier this year. Beyond that, we need to hold our politicians accountable. We need to know where our legislation is coming from. If we believe in working towards a more equitable country, we have further responsibilities: an ethical consumption of goods being an important one. Where are we getting our food, our clothing, our furniture? How are we contributing to the perpetuation of the prison-industrial complex?

To once more hearken back to Davis’ description: we make our voices heard to the government by supporting legislation like the one to completely abolish all forms of slavery, and we make our voices heard to industries through our spending. In this way, we force them into a new economic, social, and political problem, and we as individuals can begin to dismantle the prison-industrial complex.

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