Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.
The Thirteenth Amendment, ratified in 1865, formally abolished slavery in the United States. And yet, slavery exists today for the same population it targeted four whole centuries ago. While the Constitution states slavery shall not exist in this nation, it is what is between the first two commas of the amendment that bolsters the survival of the enslavement of African-Americans today: “as a punishment for crime.”
To understand this form of modern slavery, with the current rise in voice about social injustices, we need to be cognizant of the statistics about prison populations.
The United States Census states that—contrary to popular belief—only 13.4% of our nation’s population identifies as Black or African-American; in a room of twenty, not even three whole citizens are Black*. So why is it that we believe the Black communities account for a bigger part of our population? Availability bias (the prediction of probability on what information is readily available, whether given or recalled, based on personal experience) may be a factor. Black people are over-represented in media portrayals of crime and poverty. When America closes her eyes to picture a petty—as opposed to a white-collar—criminal, it is most likely a mug shot of black man that materializes.
Although just a small fraction of America, black men account for a third of America’s prison population, according to Pew Research Center. Clearly, the racial and ethnic composition of our prison populations in no way reflects the demographic composition of our nation.
What leads to this?
ACLU divulges the truth over one factor: “marijuana use is roughly equal among Blacks and whites, yet Blacks are 3.73 times as likely to be arrested for marijuana possession,” bolstering the Black prison population on scale blown out of proportion.
Drugs prove to be a potent power for producing prisoners. The documentary 13th argues that President Nixon’s and President Clinton’s policies over drugs have served to be direct feeders of increasingly large numbers of Black men to prison.
Nixon’s War on Drugs identified drug abuse as the “public enemy number one of the United States,” creating offices to enforce the criminalization of drug abuse. However, John Erlichman, Nixon’s counsel and Assistant for Domestic Affairs, revealed the enemy was not drugs or its abuse. Dan Baum, a reporter for Harper’s Magazine, reported on one of America’s most expensive and reprehensible failure of a government policy, quoting Erlichman:
“The Nixon campaign… White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people…we couldn’t make it illegal to be either…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…arrest their leaders…vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”
The real goal of the War on Drugs was not to “clean the streets” of America or help children “just say no,” as First Lady Nancy Reagan famously said as she launched a campaign to support her husband’s attempt to revive the War on Drugs—it attempted to make being Black illegal.
And President Clinton’s “3 Strikes” law was costly in every sense. Not only does it cost more to confine an inmate per additional “strike,” consider the psychological implications of a life sentence for third-strike crimes that are, albeit still criminal, drastically more minor than amounting crimes such as murder. So, if one were to be arrested for marijuana possession for a third time—which is more likely for Black people (recall that they are arrested more frequently for possession)—they would have to serve a life sentence.
Such legislation has propelled the creation of a “drug gulag.” Through these laws and campaigns, in a fashion that maintained a disproportionality of races, the prison population rose, as did America’s workforce.
Up to 800 thousand prisoners a day are put out for work and compensated scantily (down to a dollar an hour). This form of exploitation neglects the affirmation of basic rights, coercing prisoners to, sure, develop job skills but failing to offer any tinge of a worker’s entitled abilities: having a living wage, labor protections, or bargaining power. How can we assure transparency and candor about prison labor when prisons themselves are based on guarded operations and ambiguity?
While I cannot incontestably state prison laborers endure the same inconceivable pain as chattel slaves did, it is inarguable prisoners do not have the ability to protest incidents of violence, sexual abuse, neglect, and overcrowding. Similar to slaves, inmates are not given the chance to “apply” for their jobs, with no say in type of labor or amount of pay. Through the loophole in the Thirteenth Amendment, people are sent to prison perhaps for petty crimes, forced to survive a lifetime sentence of both prison and labor.
Imagine a young boy locked away for life, divested of his life ahead of him, to be locked behind both bars and into a station to sew and fold and bind and attach and cry and scream and join and assemble and break; a boy is sentenced to slavery, in a sense.
the prison labor system more just, rehabilitative, and skill-developing, we
have to send fewer people—of all races—to prison and not subject them to
backbreaking yet uncompensated labor.
*Black in the U.S. Census means full Black, excluding mixed-race persons