HOW DID WE GET HERE?
In order to responsibly start talking about abolition it’s important we understand how we got to where we are today by asking some tough questions. How did we, as a nation, fight to abolish the atrocities of slavery, grant legal equality and civil rights to all, only to end up with 25% of the entire world’s prison population by locking up 2.3 million loved ones, siblings, and parents? Why is there a multi-billion dollar industry built around locking community members away in facilities featuring traumatic punishment, but lacking true rehabilitation? And of course, why does this industry disproportionately hurt communities and families of color?
Some of your homies may have the opinion that it seems like a stretch to connect today's prison system all the way back to the era of slavery, but in reality it is impossible to separate the two. They may ask, “How could a barbaric practice that was legally abolished over 150 years ago still affect our lives today? Prison abolitionists believe slavery was never truly abolished, but rather shifted and modified through a series of events that have lead to today’s notorious Prison Industrial Complex*
*the rapid expansion of the US inmate population to the political influence of private prison companies and businesses that supply goods and services to government prison agencies for profit. (Harcourt, Bennett 2012)
The answers to these questions are nuanced, complex, and deserving of in depth research (suggestions coming later in the guide!) In an attempt to make the answer to the “how did we get here?” question digestible for you and your homies, here is a hypothetical conversation that covers the essentials:
A Conversation with Your Homie
Your Homie: Wait so even though Slavery was abolished in 1865, Prison Abolitionists believe it still exists?
You: Yea, put simply the 13th Amendment actually states that prisoners can legally be forced to do labor without payment as punishment for their crime.
Your Homie: Wow okay, so how did that amendment impact things right after abolition?
You: Well to answer that, you have to remember the motivation behind slavery in the first place, which was Colonists’ wanting, and then forcing people into free labor in order to make a profit and gain wealth off of whatever that labor produced (cotton, tobacco, sugar etc.) In order to “justify” this horrific practice, white settlers had to paint Africans as “inferior” and “evil” using their skin color as the differentiating characteristic. This is the root of Capitalism’s intersection with Racism in the USA. Roots that modern Abolitionists believe have never been dug up. It’s important to always remember that this land that was turned into profit through slave labor was taken from Native Americans through genocidal violence.
Okay so back to answering your question…
At the point when Slavery was eventually abolished, the American economy had grown heavily dependent on it. This meant that land and business owners who invested in the purchasing and exploiting human beings to turn a profit suddenly were in jeopardy of losing everything. For similar reasons, the American economy faced the same threat. This is where the slavery loophole in the 13th Amendment comes into play.
The response of those in power was to go from enslaving Black people to criminalizing them in order to continue to exploit their labor. Laws were written intentionally vague, impossible to adhere by, and only applied to freed slaves. One example was a law making it illegal to be homeless or unemployed while Blacks were systematically denied jobs and housing. As well known author and lawyer Bryan Stevenson explains, “laws governing slavery were replaced with Black Codes governing free black people — making the criminal-justice system central to new strategies of racial control.” 1
Your homie: Okay so that sounds like a shift from enslaving Black people to incarcerating them?
You: Yes, or just straight up lynching them without any repercussions. Today, it’s well publicized that Black people make up a disproportionate amount of the Prison population and are sentenced harsher than white people for committing similar crimes (more on that later).
Your Homie: Okay I’m starting to see how this leads to Mass Incarceration, but can you connect those dots for me?
You: So this pattern of Black progress towards equality being met with harsh, punitive responses from white America and Government continued throughout the 1900’s. In the later decades though there was a shift from overtly Racialized policies (remember the Black Codes) to policies written as “color blind” but only enforced and implemented at the expense of Blacks.
Your Homie: I think I’ve heard of some of these policies, remind me?
You: Yes this was when we first started to see fear and anger based politics (keep in mind this strategy has been used by both Republicans and Democrats.) You’ve probably heard of “the war on drugs,” “mandatory minimum sentences,” and “3 strikes laws.” Again, these policies were not written with any racial language, however Black and Brown folks were (and are) disproportionately targeted by police. Naturally, this is where we start to see the prison population start to sky rocket. Most find it hard to see the timing of these laws coming immediately after the Civil Rights movement as a coincidence given the nation's response to abolition.
Your Homie: So it sounds like America went from justifying Slavery by pushing the narrative that Black people are inferior to justifying locking them up by pushing the narrative that Black people are inherently criminal?
You: Yes that’s a fair way to look at it. It’s also worth mentioning the false narrative of the hyper sexually violent Black male that began with slavery and persists today.
Your Homie: Alright, I think I can bring this to today and the Prison Industrial Complex. With the volume of people being incarcerated soaring - investors saw an opportunity to make money?
You: Yes, you have so many people being convicted and sentenced to prison that the Government runs out of capacity to handle the sheer volume you mentioned. That lead to the Government outsourcing of Prisons to Private companies.
Your Homie: That seems like a conflict of interest right?
You: Right. By definition, a Corporation's one goal is to grow its profit. So if the source of income depends on humans being locked up you could imagine they would invest a lot of money into getting policies passed that lead to more prison time. These policies trickle down to the courts as pressure for harsher sentencing, and down to law enforcement as pressure to make more arrests.
Your homie: Okay I can see that. Do these Private prisons take advantage of the 13th amendment?
You: Yea unfortunately both Government run and Private prisons exploit the slavery loophole. One well documented example is the Louisiana State Penitentiary, in Angola. From a 2015 Atlantic article: “Inmates at Angola, once cleared by the prison doctor, can be forced to work under threat of punishment as severe as solitary confinement. Legally, this labor may be totally uncompensated; more typically inmates are paid meagerly—as little as two cents per hour—for their full-time work in the fields, manufacturing warehouses, or kitchens.” Atlantic
Your Homie: Ahh and it’s major Corporations that are profiting off of this free or extremely cheap labor... just like the first settlers enslaving people and generating wealth from their labor 400 years ago.
You: You got it homie.