(Pictured: Konttessa C., Age 19, Rochester, NY)
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 U.S. Constitution 13th Amendment
Slavery was never abolished in the United States. It was reformed in the thirteenth amendment and renamed “incarceration”. The United States housed approximately 1,465,200 prisoners in 20181 with a total approximate population of 327,167,434 citizens in the same year.2 Of the total population, 19,560,023 were black males, 21,342,200 were black females, 97,418,608 were white males and 100,127,799 were white females.2 According to the BJS, 465,200 of the total incarcerated population were black, while 430,500 were white.1 While these numbers appear equal, when comparing population totals by race to incarceration totals by race, black people are incarcerated at higher rates than white people, and as the BJS claims the rate of black males imprisoned was 5.8 times that of their white male counterparts, and the rate of black females imprisoned was 1.8 times that of their white female counterparts.1
The language the courts have upheld coupled with the language in the thirteenth amendment reinforce the existence of slavery in America. For example, the case Ruffin V. Commonwealth was the first supreme court case that addressed the topic of prisoner’s rights in 1871. Ruffin was declared a “Slave of the State”, and they go on to state “He was a man who not only forfeited his liberty, but all of his personal rights”.3 The thirteenth amendment itself states that slavery and involuntary servitude may exist as punishment for crime. While many organizations and court cases have advanced prisoners’ rights, the purpose of the incarceration system remains the same. To punish, dehumanize, and deprive one’s liberty, rather than rehabilitate.
The incarceration system additionally uses privatized prisons and UNICOR, a government owned corporation, otherwise known as the Federal Prison Industry. Privatized prisons are run as a business where predominately white corporation owners can profit off housing prisoners, which lends motivation to keeping prisons full. UNICOR was established in 1934, and they claim their goal “is to protect society and reduce crime by preparing inmates with job training and practical work skills for reentry success”.4 The FPI also states it pays inmates between $0.23 and $1.15 per hour, well below minimum wage.4 While on the surface this prison program appears productive, and while it makes sense to support initiatives to rehabilitate criminals and offer alternative paths to those who historically have been disenfranchised, this misses an imperative discussion looking at historic context. Slavery was abolished with the thirteenth amendment in 1865. The Civil Rights act was not introduced until 1964. The establishment of a government owned corporation took place only 70 years post slavery, and during segregation, where Black people were systematically targeted. Incarceration came about to continue the institution of slavery which people can directly profit from. Private corporations continue to benefit from paying practically nothing for prison labor. Predominately white Americans continue to profit off a predominately Black prison institution.
Racism is a disease manifested through the incarceration system in the form of rebranded slavery. To remedy this, the incarceration system, and the law itself must be reformed. The usage of private prisons in America must be abolished. No one should ever benefit financially from people committing crimes, and no one should have financial motive to keep prisons full. Abolishing private prisons takes out financial motive to continue incarcerating people, decreasing the risk of incarcerating innocent people, and targeting Black Americans. The thirteenth amendment must be changed to exclude slavery and involuntary servitude from its language and must assert prisoners are to be rehabilitated. With private prisons abolished, and the assertion by the constitution the incarceration system is a means to rehabilitation, the entire system within needs to be reformed. Job programs such as the one UNICOR proposes should pay minimum wage, and these programs should be geared towards developing work skills in a niche that interests the citizen. Prisons must adopt anti-racism policies, preventing guards from using derogatory racial remarks and dehumanizing their prisoners. Mental health services, education, healthcare, and reentry into society must be the primary goal, rather than punishment. Most of all, prisoners need to be viewed fist and foremost as human beings. We must adopt policies to first do no harm. If we rehumanize our prison population, we work forward towards improving quality of life, and deconstructing slavery in its newest form.
1 Carson, Ann. “Prisoners in 2018.” Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS), 30 Apr. 2020, www.bjs.gov/index.cfm?ty=pbdetail.
2 Bureau, US Census. “2018 Population Estimates by Age, Sex, Race and Hispanic Origin.” The United States Census Bureau, 8 June 2020, www.census.gov/newsroom/press-kits/2019/detailed-estimates.html
3 Ruffin V. The Commonwealth. 21 Gratt. 790. Supreme Court of Appeals of Virginia 1871.
4 “About UNICOR.” UNICOR, www.unicor.gov/about.aspx.