April V. Taylor
The United States continues to surpass its own world record for incarcerating the highest percentage of its population despite crime rates having dropped consistently for nearly a generation. At the end of 2005, the Bureau of Prisons reported that one out of every 32 adults was in prison, in jail, on probation, or on parole, with race defining nearly every aspect of the criminal justice system.
Police targeting, criminal charges, and rates of conviction, all disproportionate in terms of race, contribute to Black men between the ages of 20 and 39 accounting for nearly one third of all sentenced prisoners.
Nearly 40 states allow private corporations to exploit prison labor, with for-profit prisons paying inmates as little as 17 cents an hour. Prison administrators are lobbying corporations who have sweatshops overseas to bring their business back to America with guarantees of cheaper labor, no sick days or paid vacations, and no possibility of organizing unions.
The list of corporations exploiting prison labor include AT&T, AutoZone, Bank of America, Bayer, Berkshire Hathaway, Boeing, Cargill, Caterpillar, Chevron, the former Chrysler Group, Costco Wholesale, Dell, John Deere, Eddie Bauer, Eli Lilly, ExxonMobil, Fruit of the Loom, GEICO, GlaxoSmithKline, Glaxo Wellcome, Hewlett-Packard, Hoffmann-La Roche, IBM, International Paper, JanSport, Johnson & Johnson, Kmart, Koch Industries, Macy’s, Mary Kay, McDonald’s, Merck, Microsoft, Motorola, Nintendo, Pfizer, Procter & Gamble, Quaker Oats, Revlon, Sarah Lee, Sears, Shell, Sprint, Starbucks, State Farm Insurance, Target, Texas Instrument, United Airlines, UPS, Verizon, Victoria’s Secret, Wal-Mart and Wendy’s.
Need an idea of just how much the U.S. economy relies on prison industry production? Here are some statistics: “According to the Left Business Observer, the federal prison industry produces 100% of all military helmets, ammunition belts, bullet-proof vests, ID tags, shirts, pants, tents, bags, and canteens. Along with war supplies, prison workers supply 98% of the entire market for equipment assembly services; 93% of paints and paintbrushes; 92% of stove assembly; 46% of body armor; 36% of home appliances; 30% of headphones/microphones/speakers; and 21% of office furniture. Airplane parts, medical supplies, and much more: prisoners are even raising seeing-eye dogs for blind people.”
These mega-corporations are making freedom the exception rather than the rule in America, with a growing number of American prisons contracted out as for-profit businesses to for-profit companies who are paid by the state, with that profit dependent on having as many inmates as possible, housed as cheaply as possible. It is estimated that around a million American inmates are working full-time in U.S. jails and prisons performing tasks that range from building office furniture, manufacturing military equipment, making hotel reservations through corporate call centers, manufacturing fashion accessories and stamping license plates.
This paradigm of for-profit prisons has seen the country’s incarceration rate triple since 1980 despite the fact that violent crime has been on the decline. In any given year, 13 million Americans are introduced to jails, with more than 6 million people under “correctional supervision.” This breaks down to 1 out of every 100 “free” Americans serving time in jail or prison
What many Americans fail to realize is that slavery is legal in prisons under the 13th Amendment of the Constitution. Commonly referred to as the Exception Clause, it reads: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States.” Add this to the fact that prior to the abolition of slavery, there was no real prison system in the United States.
From Reconstruction all the way to the present day, the Constitution has been used by the criminal justice system to re-enslave entire segments of the population, with more Black men under the control of the criminal justice system that what were enslaved in 1850, ten years prior to the Civil War. With so many citizens caught in the jaws of this life sucking force, the new Jim Crow of mass incarceration has managed to combine the horrors of slavery and apartheid and bring them to life in the nightmare that has become justice in America.
Vast sums of money are at stake within the prison industrial complex and its modern form of slavery, with the for-profit prison industry worth $70 billion. The country’s largest owner of for-profit prisons and immigration detention facilities, Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) had revenues of $1.7 billion in 2013 and profits of $300 million. CCA makes the profits by exploiting the labor of the 81,384 inmates held in its facilities on average on any given day.
CCA’s filings with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission read like the documents of a slave-trader, where human beings are reduced to units of labor and sale. The documents make human freedom seem like an evil, listing dangers to profitability that are explicitly written to point out that, ““relaxation of enforcement efforts, leniency in conviction or parole standards and sentencing practices or through the decriminalization of certain activities that are currently proscribed by our criminal laws…any changes with respect to drugs and controlled substances or illegal immigration could affect the number of persons arrested, convicted, and sentenced, thereby potentially reducing demand for correctional facilities to house them.”
Recently CCA has floated a proposal to prison officials in 48 states that would allow the company to buy and manage public prisons at a cost savings to states by requiring prisons to have at least 1,000 beds and maintain a 90 percent occupancy rate for AT LEAST 20 YEARS! As Obama and lawmakers put on the facade of trying to reduce harsh sentencing laws, CCA and other special interest corporations are lobbying for three-strikes laws that mandate sentences of 25 years to life for multiple felonies and “truth in sentencing” legislation that mandates that those sentenced to prison serve most or all of their time.
CCA and for-profit prison companies do not just lobby states and politicians, they woo investors by presenting private prisons as a recession-resistant investment opportunity, where an expanding U.S. population guarantees a proportionally expanding prison population.
The parallels between slavery and Jim Crow do not end with the exploitation of the prison labor force. When inmates are released from prison, they go from being slaves to sharecroppers as they are subjected to fines and obligations as a result of the criminal justice system. In much the same way that sharecropping, where former slave masters owned everything, kept people from leaving the South at the end of slavery, probation is like sharecropping where inmates/slaves are off of the plantation but are still beholden to the slave master.
As state and federal governments hack away at the right to vote, fracture families through incarceration, turn schools into pipelines to feed the prison system, and turn entire communities into open air prisons of people under house arrest, many Americans are being forced to consider the fact that millions of Americans are not truly free. The sordid and painful truth is that America’s criminal justice system is not meant for crime prevention and control but rather to function as a system of racial and social control.
The gut-wrenching reality of America’s prison industrial complex sees at least 50,000 men, enough to fill Yankee Stadium, wake up in solitary confinement everyday, locked in small cells, devoid of human contact, unable to read and write freely. Few stop to ponder how a country that rejects the acts of hanging, flogging and disemboweling could cage such vast numbers of its population for decades and somehow describe it as humane.
Just as slavery focused on dehumanizing Black people, the prison industrial complex’s modern form of slavery disproportionately affects Blacks, with Black people having an incarceration rate 7 times higher than whites. A Black prisoner from Mississippi described his experience as an inmate by stating, “I’m beginning to believe that U.S.A. stands for the Underprivileged Slaves of America.”
With more and more Black and Latino men and women being sent to prison for longer sentences than whites, the criminalization of an entire generation of young people, and an ever increasing number of children left orphaned by the criminal justice system, the reach of private corporations and the state perpetuates chattel slavery and ushers in a level of human bondage that is unparalleled in this century. While Black people make up just 13 percent of the general U.S. population, they account for 40 percent of U.S. prisoners.
Dating back to emancipation and Reconstruction, the 13th Amendment’s authorization to use prison labor as a bridge between slavery and paid work, the Black Codes and convict lease program that criminalized legal activity for Black people and allowed the state to use “unfree” labor by leasing prisoners to businesses and corporations have allowed slavery to continue to evolve and remain a crucial cornerstone of the American economy. The 13th Amendment’s empowering of the state to regulate the relationship between private individuals and corporations gave rise to new state-maintained structures of racism that allows corporations to get away with paying prisoners wages that rival those of third-world sweatshops while stripping them of their political, economic and social rights and relegating them to second-class citizens.
Louisiana’s Angola prison is one of the best illustrations of how slavery, Reconstruction, mass incarceration and prison labor have enjoyed an uninterrupted evolution through American history. Jaron Browne, an organizer with People Organized to Win Employment Rights (POWER) describes Angola’s evolution: “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.”
Just as Black Codes allowed Black people to be arrested and sent to prison for perfectly legal activities, the majority of current inmates are not hardened criminals. Ninety-seven percent of federal inmates have been convicted of non-violent crimes, and two-thirds of the estimated one million state prisoners are convicted of non-violent offenses. Further underscoring the desperate lengths the criminal justice system goes through to maintain an ever increasing prison population that yields ever increasing profits is that fact that studies indicate that more than half of the 623,000 inmates in municipal or county jails are actually innocent of the crimes they are accused of.
Michelle Alexander, author of “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration In The Age Of Colorblindness,” sums up what America must do to end slavery and the exploitation of a minority underclass for the first time in this country’s historyl: “We can and we must build a movement, and not only [about] mass incarceration and mass deportation, but a broad-based radical, human rights movement that ends once and for all our history’s cycle of creating caste-like systems in America, a movement for education, not incarceration, for jobs, not jails, a movement to end all forms of legal discrimination against people released from prison, discrimination that denies them basic human rights to work, to shelter, to food, a movement for voting rights for all, including those behind bars … a movement that will end the war on drugs, once and for all, and shift to a public health model dealing with drug addiction and drug abuse, a movement that will stand up to the police unions and transform the police itself from warriors into peace officers directly accountable to the communities they serve, a movement that will ensure that every dollar saved from ending the wars that have been declared on poor communities of color, the wars on crime and drugs, will be invested back into these communities, the communities most harmed, meaningful reparations and justice reinvestment, a movement that abandons our purely punitive approach to dealing with violence and violent crimes and embraces a more restorative and rehabilitative approach … a movement that is rooted in the dignity and humanity of us all, no matter who we are, where we come from or what we may have done.”