Editor’s Note: Quadaire has been on a long lockdown for the past few weeks, and spent some time researching the deep roots of mass incarceration. He wanted to share the facts he learned and engage the incarcerated population in Virginia.
Since its conception, America has benefit from free labor and the industry of slavery. Slavery has long been abolished, but the clause of ‘supporting it in cases of punishment for a crime’ has been continuously exploited by corporations and politicians. This has lead to the modern day social crisis of mass incarceration and the lucrative enterprise of the prion industrial complex.
Post-civil war, disgruntled Southern lawmakers sought to evade the parameters laid out by the Reconstruction Amendments (Amendments XIII, XIV, and XV). They used the exception marked out in the 13th amendment that legalized slavery in case of punishment for a crime as the basis for achieving their goal. Incarcerating former slaves disqualified their newfound citizenship, nullified their voting rights, and returned them to chains and involuntary servitude. These Southern lawmakers legislated numerous laws and policies such as “Race Codes,” “Black Codes” and many more targeting former slaves for incarceration. White Southerners effectively weaponized the law to enlist America’s Criminal Justice System as a device to perpetuate slavery under other names.
One of these reimagined forms of slavery mirrored a pre-civil war program used in Louisiana, known as “convict leasing.” Incarcerated prisoners were leased to private companies and plantations as laborers. Ironically, these programs were often many more times dangerous than slavery conditions prior. Private companies held no direct investments when it came to their leased laborers. Unlike former slave owners who stood to lose money if the slaves were to get horribly sick or die, private companies with leased convicts were less dissuaded to put them in very unsafe and hostile environments. Convicts were more harshly abused, and in many cases, company task masters would drive them to their deaths. Since the convict leasing program was facilitated through contracts between the prison and the employer, when a laborer died, the prison would simply replace them to meet their contractural obligations and business resumed as usual.
Convict leasing took numerous lives before it was outlawed. Eventually, the program was replaced by ‘correctional enterprises’ — state-owned companies that used prisoner’s forced labor. Correctional enterprises used prisoner labor to manufacture a number of products ranging from eye glasses, shoes, and state license plates. Correctional enterprises are still widely used today. While they gross multi-million dollars a year, their workers, incarcerated peoples, average to earn about $1 per day to take care of themselves and in many cases, their families.
The prison industrial complex has thus evolved. Today, the highest grossing business fueled by the incarceration of Americans is that of the private prison sector. Private prison corporations gross multi-billion dollars a year. The business arrangement set between these corporations who provide incarceration services to the governmental agencies that employ them is a simple one: Incarcerated service providers supply bed space to state and federal agencies and must meet a quote of occupants in order to satisfy their contracted obligations. The most sinister part of this dynamic is the corporations that provide private prisons are publicly traded on the stock market. Thus, anyone and everyone, even law enforcement officers can profit from an increase in the incarceration rate.
One more interesting concept to identify in the scheme of prison for profit is a little more subtle than others. In 1994, 10 years after the first installation of a private prison, the Clinton Administration enacted the Crime Act. This piece of legislation awarded incentives to the states who get more severe on crime. The Crime Act inadvertently encouraged systemic racism with monetary gain and further the profit-for-prison dynamic.
In a perfect world, we can see the logic in society profiting from anti-social acts such as crime. But in America, our racist past infects our criminal justice system to its core. Post-Civil War and Jim Crow politicians have taken advantage of that notion from the onset of the Emancipation Proclamation. Segregationist politicians worked hard to frame the tactics of the civil rights movement as ‘crime running rapid in the streets’ and spawned “tough-on-crime” politics that still serve as the breeding ground for dog whistle politics today. (as defined in Rethinking Incarceration, as racial legislation ensconced within coded rhetoric about the common good)
Never forget that the American justice system is built on principles of the slave trade, monetary gain at the cost of human lives. Everything from the low cost, low quality food being served in prison mess halls, the highly marked up nearly expired food products being pushed through commissary, excessive price tags on essentially free services such as emails, all combined with state-sponsored monetary incentives for persecuting felony charges, keeping an ample incarceration rate, and cutting corners on a bare essentials are all aimed at profiting of human lives…
All of this takes place under the guise of sound economical principles, public safety, and justice for victims, but just as slavery was regarded as a noble conquest in the eyes of many Americans, profiting from the misfortune of already poor, disparaged people is nothing more than vile, life-costing capitalism.
Thought Starter Questions for the Incarcerated:
Write your own essay, poem, or submit art relative to this topic. Do not forget to include your name and any contact information for any readers who may be able to offer you some assistance.
- Do you believe it is possible to overcome hundreds of years of slave trade mentality in America and your lifetime?
- Crime must be addressed in order to have a functional and productive society. How can society better use the prison system to work for those incarcerated and the general public?
- How can the prison system be used to serve communities?
- Do you believe that mass incarceration is racially motivated due to the past? Why or why not?
- Do you believe America can survive without the use of slavery in one form or another?