Tag Archives: mass incarceration

We Didn’t Outlaw Slavery

You hear the terms “schools-to-prison pipeline” and “prison-industrial complex” and they’re really complicated and maybe they sound like this weird thing that came out of academia’s radical left and maybe you want to dismiss them.

Let me say it more simply: the United States Constitution didn’t end slavery. Our job is not done.

Here’s the exact text of the Thirteenth Amendment:

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.

That’s one hell of a loophole. And in fact, it was exploited from the beginning of Reconstruction, with “Black Codes” that criminalized normal human activities for supposedly free blacks.

It’s still being exploited. That’s what the “War on Drugs” was all about — adding a crime for which someone could be duly convicted and enslaved, simply for possessing banned property. Somebody benefits from that. Actually, a whole lot of corporations benefit from it. Private prisons, for instance, get money from the government plus the nearly free labor of the inmates.

Where are we today? Check this out, from the article “Rooted in Slavery” by Jaron Browne.

It may surprise some people that as the number of people without jobs increases, the number of working people actually increases—they become prison laborers. Everyone inside has a job. There are currently over 70 factories in California’s 33 prisons alone. Prisoners do everything from textile work and construction, to manufacturing and service work.

That’s what “prison-industrial complex” means. Such a fancy word for such an unconscionable institution!

The mass incarceration we see today has huge racial disparities. One in six black men are in prison, for example. Hispanics are imprisoned at high rates as well. Here are the disparities in full color, courtesy of Wikipedia.


There are a couple of important things to look at here. First: the obvious racial disparities. Second: the huge percentage of black men who are missing from their families. If 4.7 of my own male family members were missing, I would be pissed! And hurting. Children whose parents were torn away. Third, and something not usually explored, is that despite the disparities, our prison system has also extended this system of enslavement to white people.  That’s why the statement “No one is free until all people are free” is so very relevant.

How far, exactly, are we planning to let this system continue to expand? Here’s the trend, up through 2012.


rise in prison population

Dear white people: Democrat and Republican alike, we let this happen. We let the “War on Drugs” go on. We let laws like “Three Strikes You’re Out” and mandatory sentencing laws get passed.

We allowed slavery to continue from the Civil War into the present day.

This is a hard truth and a bitter pill to swallow. It’s no wonder so many people are looking the other way. But understanding the problem is the first step toward reaching solutions.

The solutions are there.

I didn’t have to look very far to find all these statistics. We don’t have to look all that far to find solutions, either. Black feminist Angela Davis has written and spoken widely on this topic. A quick google search and here we go: “Bigger Than Incarceration: Angela Davis Talks Mass Criminalization, Mental Health and the War on Drugs.”

And then there’s this article, which traces abolitionist movements from the end of the Civil War to the present day. “Slavery and Prison – Understanding the Connections” by Kim Gilmore.

And there are movements of organized prisoners too: “Texas prisoners organize: threaten to strike on April 4th with IWW Prisoner Union.”

Dear white people: we don’t have to think up our own solutions. We just have to throw our support behind the people who are already hard at work!

Because Black Lives Matter.