by Sammy Bacha
(The following is excerpted from a longer piece.)
Most people believe that slavery in America ended with the Civil War, or the passing of the 13th Amendment. However, written within the language of that amendment is a provision that in fact legalized slavery. Laws were passed to “penalize” those who failed to perform to societal standards, leading to “charges” being levied against them creating a “debt” to society. This debt could only be paid by the individual through years of labor being performed while their bodies were held in custody as collateral for the unpaid debt. As this system of modern-day slavery through mass incarceration reaches proportions that can no longer be ignored, one can only wonder how people in the “Land of the Free” can continue to blindly believe that slavery is something only found in history books.
The passing of the 13th Amendment was a momentous occasion for the United States. Freeing the slaves and ending the Civil War came with a compromise to the southern states, whose main concern was the loss of cheap labor to work the plantations. The final agreed-upon language in the amendment, in order to get enough signatures to pass, stated in part: “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.”
This language allowed the plantation owners to keep inexpensive labor by using prisoners to pick cotton and do field labor. The rise of the “chain gang” was the beginning of post-13th Amendment slavery and a precursor to the prison industrial complex.
As the time passed, states themselves began to see the enormous financial benefit to owning these slaves and putting them to work. They soon began to use fear-mongering tactics to increase their workforce. The war on drugs, gangs, and crime, along with publicizing criminal prosecutions, are evidence of such methods. This led to longer prison sentences, and there now exists an entire subsection of the government dedicated to maintaining this stable of slaves. These days, private corporations are getting in on the slave gravy train. The Correctional Corporation of America (CCA) and the California Prison Industry Authority (CalPIA) are just a couple of the examples of “for-profit” slave workforce companies.
These companies and others like them are publicly traded, and pay millions to lobby for harsher sentencing and more facilities to profit from in order to increase their share prices. Check your retirement fund: Are you a slave owner?
Republished from “Perspectives from the Cell Block: An Anthology of Prisoner Writings” – edited by Joan Parkin in collaboration with incarcerated people from Mule Creek State Prison.