Almost an hour ago, I left my only class for the day after concluding the stunning and informative documentary “The 13th.” It fits into our current studies, in which we have been focusing on how race is portrayed in the media. Recently, we read some writings from Michelle Alexander on the subject of mass incarceration as the new slavery, disproportionately affecting people of color. This documentary went through the history of incarceration in the United States, highlighting the prison population during certain years. It was surprising that, in the 1970s, the prison population was close to 300,000—in 2000, it was dramatically inflated to over 2.1 million people. Although the United States constitutes just 5% of the world’s population, according to the documentary, it is home to 25% of the world’s jailed population.
If you were like I was at the beginning of this race unit of my class, you may wonder just how mass incarceration, something most people have been used to for many decades, can come close to being called slavery. It didn’t take much looking to drive the truth of this comparison home.
Here is what I have seen of prisons and their claims to rehabilitate and reintroduce, with respect to the system here in the United States. Beginning in my childhood years, I was told that people who did bad things ended up in jail. I was under the impression that jails and prisons were made to be scary and dirty on purpose, because it would scare inmates out of any notions to commit crimes after their release. This system was deemed necessary for reasons I could understand—if a murderer was jailed, and was scared into never killing again, I was for it. However, the lens through which I was able to look at this problem and draw conclusions was blurred and selective.
I have heard various words used to slander people of color, especially after they have cut off people in traffic, or have had a mug shot featured on the news. With the proliferation of dark faces in these roles, it isn’t difficult for many to generalize entire peoples with conclusions based off of a few incidences. While I won’t restate any of the aforementioned insults, it’s likely that you have heard them used and, unlike many things in life, the fact that I’m letting your imagination fill in the gaps does not incorrectly depict reality.
There is the stereotypical story of a black man going to jail, leaving a woman behind to raise any children they may have together. The first reason many people would provide for this is that the man deserved it—if he committed the crime, by all means he should serve time. However, there is no consideration of innocence in this statement. It does nothing to reflect the countless cases of police brutality, bogus arrests, or the practice of racial profiling. It’s a story relied on countless time to inform hate speech, statements that support the incarceration of black people, even going so far as to naturalize criminal behavior in people of color. It’s an all-too-easy way to ignore the actual problems while continuing to perpetuate racist behaviors.
The 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was hailed as a turning point in history. It reads: “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.”
Do you see what I did there? I crossed out the portion that directly points to the loophole that enables the current system of mass incarceration. History tends to favor the dominant group in society, and I’m willing to bet this is why so many people only remember this amendment as the one that abolished slavery/involuntary servitude. Now, let me restate the text of the 13th Amendment, adding my own emphasis on a portion of it:
“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.”
There we go. Now we see the fullness of an amendment commonly hailed as revolutionary, and yet enables the current failings in jails and prisons nationwide. The practice of slavery, wherein people of color were often shipped overseas to work for no wage, enduring torture and separation from families, as well as worse fates, did end. However, this portion that I have boldfaced and underlined provides a basis for another form of the institution of slavery. In this sense, we have never really abolished slavery—we have only evolved it.
By watching the documentary, as I encourage everyone to do, you may be surprised by the number of corporations that serve to benefit from the labor of prisoners. It’s an effective system, no doubt—prisoners do hard labor, turning out a variety of products for sale on the mass market today, in order to serve their time. However, this does not consider innocence. It does not allow for the consideration of the evolution of one of the most vile practices in our history—indeed, in the history of the world. For doing all this work, you might think these prisoners would be rehabilitated and reintroduced without a problem, but you would be wrong. They face gaps in their rights as citizens, even though they have “paid their debts to society.” They are essentially robbed of being people ever again, no matter what crime they were charged with. It’s free labor, no mess, no stress—it’s sickening, but it is happening, make no mistake.