“ Upon incarceration, you are subject to servitude and if you don’t comply then you will be subject to some form of punishment.” This is nothing more than a caste system by which the minds of the incarcerated are taught to place themselves below the authority and to remain at their beck and call. This translates to their life during freedom”. – Inmate 10060819
Just a few months ago, North and South Carolinians were prepping for Hurricane Florence. They were wiping out the shelves at a variety of grocery stores, boarding up their residences and businesses, and in many cases evacuating their homes. In preparation of the heavy rain and wind, mandatory evacuations were issued out. One in particular came from the governor of South Carolina, Henry McMaster. Reportedly, over one million people evacuated, including some who normally wouldn’t such as hospitalized patients and the staff of military bases. While there were millions fleeing for safety, there were thousands that weren’t given a chance to decide to leave. Those thousands of people that I am referring to are people that aren’t given the chance to make basic everyday decisions that people like you and I in the free world are able to make. They are humans just like you and I, yet subjected to horrific and unimaginable conditions.
The Governor of South Carolina tweeted “The people of SC who you’re responsible for include those who are incarcerated.” However, prison officials decided not to evacuate several prisons, even though those prisons fell within the mandatory evacuation zone. This however, is not the first time this kind of occurrence has happened. Back in 2005, those same decisions were made during Hurricane Katrina to not evacuate prisons in mandatory evacuation zones. Thousands of prisoners found themselves in chest-level sewer flood waters with no means of escape. They were locked inside gym-like facilities, abandoned, and left for days without food or water.
Many of us have heard the horror stories of what goes on behind prison walls and yet we turn a blind eye. We turn a blind eye because although we ourselves become fearful of just hearing the word prison, we cannot imagine living in a world without the prison system. After all, prison systems help keep communities free of crime right? At least that’s what’s been iterated throughout American history.
After the abolition of slavery, former slave states created the Black Codes. The Black Codes were a mere revision of the Slave Codes. Although slavery was abolished, states began to criminalize a range of gestures and acts that were illegal only when the person committing them were black. Crimes ranged from homelessness, absence from work, breach of job contracts, the possession of firearms, and insulting gestures or acts. In 1865, the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution abolished slavery and involuntary servitude, but, what most of us didn’t catch is the exception. Slavery was abolished “except as punishment for a crime, whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.”
The Black Codes created crimes that only black people could be duly convicted of. Convict labor came into play shortly afterward, wherein convicts were sold as forced laborers to lumber camps, brickyards, railroads, farms, plantations, and dozens of corporations throughout the South. Prisoners became younger and blacker and the length of their sentences longer. Although convict leasing faded after the Civil Rights era that depleted the existence of Jim Crow, the amount of black prisoners and the length of their sentences has increased. Why? Because the War on Drugs was introduced which birthed mass incarceration, formerly known as the New Jim Crow.
“One may perceive in the penitentiary many reflections of chattel slavery as it was practiced in the South. Both institutions subordinated their subjects to the will of others. Like Southern slaves, prison inmates follow a daily routine specified by their superiors. Both institutions reduced their subjects to dependence on others for the supply of basic human services such as food and shelter. Both isolated their subjects from the general population by confining them to a fixed habitat. And both frequently coerced their subjects to work, often for longer hours and for less compensation than free laborers.” -Historian Adam Jay Hirsch
The War on Drugs implemented under the Nixon administration gave local, state and federal police officers access to military bases, intelligence, research, weapons and other equipment for drug prohibition. Thousands of homes were raided, usually with forced and unannounced entry by SWAT teams. Sometimes as little as a gram of cocaine or marijuana was found but that didn’t stop these military equipped officers from murdering innocent people, handcuffing children and grandparents, verbally abusing and traumatizing them, and hauling their loved ones off to prison.
Research has proven that drug crime was in fact not increasing during the Reagan administration. In reality, this was a ploy by politicians to start mass incarceration and increase production for large corporations… oh and not to mention put money, drugs and assets into the hands of police departments. The police departments got to keep 80% of the value of forfeitures seized in drug raids (cash, clothes, cars, homes, and drugs). The money was their incentive for knocking people off and redistributing the drugs back into those same communities. Mass incarceration heated up in the 1980’s during the Reagan era “Just Say No”. The Reagans appealed to the emotions of many Americans by expressing that they wanted our communities to be safer, drug crime was rapidly increasing, and in order to ensure that we were protected, they implemented the “tough on crime” stances which forced longer prison sentences for petty crimes. Thereafter, former President Bill Clinton initiated the three strikes rule, significantly increasing the prison sentence of persons convicted of a felony who have been previously convicted of two or more violent or serious crimes; mass incarceration boiled over and reached an all time high.
There was then a massive project of prison construction initiated during this time. More than 2 million people are currently incarcerated. More than 800,000 of those people are black. The Washington-based Sentencing Project published a study of U.S. populations in prison and jail and found that one in four black men between the ages of twenty and twenty-nine were among those numbers. The truth of the matter is more African American adults are under correctional control today than were enslaved in 1850. This is no mistake. In fact, the statistics quoted have likely been normalized by many. Most will say they are not surprised because the racial stereotypes and assumptions have clouded our judgment. We have internalized the effects of racism so much that even though we know the majority of our black men are locked away in cages, we have excused it. It is common to turn on the TV and see images of black men in handcuffs on the evening news, movies and media.
We tell ourselves that they deserve it and that our communities are safer without them and then we turn back around and question where the bulk of them are when there is lack of representation from them in the polls. We ask where are they when we need mechanical and physical support, when our children are left fatherless, and when women are forced to pick up the slack. We turn a blind eye to the effects of the prison system but are left with the handicapped pieces that are dished back out to us after the prison system has no use or room for them anymore. They are given back to the streets after they have “served their sentence” or got off on “good behavior” yet they are given to us branded and labeled as “criminals” and “felons”.
We are talking about a system that is suppose to rehabilitate them, but the recidivism rates prove that the system actually works in the opposite direction. Chances of becoming incarcerated again for our black men are greater than that of them becoming employed. When we talk about the prison system, we don’t mention that large corporations and businesses invest in prison systems the most because they sustain the most profit. We don’t mention that these same businesses and corporations can buy labor from a prisoner for as little as $18.50 a month. We don’t mention the fact that this system incarcerates the majority of black fathers for child support, yet their labor in prison does not contribute at all to the mothers in need.
African American men are locked into cages and structured into a subordinate position. They are told when to eat, when to wash, when to come out of their cells and when to work and when to talk on the phones. It’s easy to imagine that African American men in urban areas chose a life of crime, instead of accepting the real possibility that their lives are structured in a way that guaranteed their early admission into a system from which they can never escape. Not only does the system lock them out, they are locked out by their communities and forced to accept inferior positions. They lose respect from all over and are feared by many, including the ones that claim to love them. The bulk of the love and respect they will receive come from the very streets that got them locked away, from the very people that live and breath the same realities. What is not discussed is the mental effects this “rehabilitation system” has on it’s average prisoner. Reportedly, there are many people suffering from mental illness who are in jails and prisons than there are in all psychiatric hospitals in the United States. So why are we subjecting them to slave like conditions and why is the Thirteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution endorsing it? This my friend is the “protections and immunities” that the land of the free and home of the brave guarantees. Citizens receive protection from being subjected to slavery but not if you are not a prisoner. After reading this, I encourage you to foster conversations amongst yourself, your family, friends, communities, and politicians. I urge you to analyze the way that you think about the prison system, prisoners, and ex-convicts.
A heavy hand has been laid upon us. As a people, we feel ourselves to be not only deeply injured, but grossly misunderstood. Our white countrymen do not know us. They are strangers to our character, ignorant of our capacity, oblivious to our history and progress, and are misinformed as to the principles and ideas that control and guide us, as a people. The great mass of American citizens estimates us as being a characterless and purposeless people; and hence we hold up our heads, if at all, against the withering influence of a nation’s scorn and contempt. -Fredrick Douglass 1853.
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