By Rev. Murphy Davis
Vol. 22, No. 3, 2000 pp. 21-24
Our friend Thony is locked up for a sentence of 481 years in an infamous Southern plantation-style prison. He spends his days with a swing blade cutting grass on the edge of ditches over the 20,000-acre prison. For his labor he is paid two cents per hour. One penny per hour is banked until his parole consideration (2070); the other is his to spend at the prison store.
Mary Louise sews blue stripes down the pants legs of prison uniforms at the garment factory near the women’s prison. For her eight hours a day she is paid nothing. She begs stamps from friends to write to her children.
Charles stands, day after day, in front of a machine, watching it stamp out license plates. The work is monotonous, and he is paid nothing for it The prison tells him he is building “work skills.” But since license plates are only made in prison industries, he is not being prepared for any work in the outside market.
Frank sits on death row. Day in, day out, he is, for all practical purposes, idle. Television, exercise, writing letters, and playing checkers pass the time. Frank, though young, strong, and energetic, is not allowed to work. He has spent the past ten years of his life unable to do anything of use to anyone.
Thony, Mary Louise, Charles, and Frank, like more than two million men, women, and children in the United States, cannot control their own labor. They are slaves.
Slavery is, of course, not a fashionable word in the early days of the twenty-first century. We assume ourselves to be rid of it. But an often-overlooked fact of U.S. political life and history is that the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution did not abolish slavery in this country. It simply narrowed the practice. The amendment reads “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” (emphasis mine). Prisoners are, by mandate of the United States Constitution, slaves.
In the 1970s, the terminology of the prison system started to change. We began to have “Correctional Institutions,” -Diagnostic and Classification Centers,” “Youth Development Centers,” etc. Wardens became “Superintendents;” guards became “Correctional Officers;” prisoners became “inmates.” Solitary confinement, or the “hole,” became the “Adjustment Center?’ The language of scientific penology attempts to mask harsh reality.
Some of the tough talk of recent years has abandoned the “new” penology and reverted to the chain gang approach. But whatever words we use for the system or its captives, prisoners are people from whom most rights of citizenship have been taken. They have no right to control where they are, with whom, or how they spend their time in forced labor or forced idleness. Whether we say they are given over to the prison system to be “corrected,” “rehabilitated,” or “incapacitated,” the fact remains that they are in the system to accomplish one goal: punishment.
Why? And for whom? Can we be satisfied to live with the commonly held assumption that people are in prison solely because they have done bad things? If this assumption were true then why would there be such wide variation in incarceration rates around the world and even within the United States? The United States goes back and forth with Russia for the distinction of being the world’s number one jailer. That is to say that the U.S. depends more than any ether government in the world-on caging people as a response to our problems. In recent decades, we have closed mental hospitals, addiction services, and community programs for the retarded and the disabled, not to mention support services for families, children, and the elderly. Prisons and jails have become the one-stop solution for all our problems. There are, in many states, more mentally ill people in county jails and state prisons than in hospitals. Most expressions of ‘deviance” have been criminalized and the criminal control system is supposed to take care of it all.
Prisons have not always been such major institutions in the United States. Georgia’s penal history is representative of most Southern states: The first state prison was opened in Milledgeville (then the state capital) in 1817. The prison was based on the “Auburn plan” which assumed that hard work would simultaneously punish and reform. The average number of prisoners remained around two-hundred–all white. Black people, of course, were slaves and were dealt with inside the system of private ownership.
This development in Georgia roughly coincided with the opening of state prisons in other states. Thomas Jefferson took from Italian philosopher Cesare Beccaria the notion of confined convict slavery and designed a prison for Virginia that opened to receive prisoners in 1800. Centuries earlier, governments had learned that the punishment of slavery could be used to the benefit of the state. Galley slavery of ancient Greece and Rome was used again in France and Spain during the fourteenth and fifteenth
In the nineteenth century, slavery as punishment was tailored to the needs of the American system. The benefits of this form of punishment to general social control were frankly admitted. A prison report in 1820 stressed that convict submission was ‘demanded not so much for the smooth functioning of the prison but for the sake of the convict himself, who shall learn to submit willingly to the fate of the lower classes.”
As the system of American prison slavery was honed, the controversy raged over the practice of chattel slavery. At the close of the Civil War, the controversy focused on the wording of the Constitutional Amendment to legally abolish slavery. Led by Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner, those who argued for the complete abolition of slavery in the United States lost their struggle. The Thirteenth Amendment as it was passed, and as it stands, forbids slavery “except as a punishment for crime.” This was a major victory for the white political forces of the old Confederacy, bitter over the loss of their captive labor force. Rather than legally abolishing slavery, the amendment changed the system to permit the state, not private citizens, to be slave owners.
After the Civil War, Southern planters thought themselves lost without their slaves. The one legal form of slavery still available to them was imprisonment Some states passed “Black Codes.” Georgia and other states passed vagrancy laws, and similar statutes and ordinances as a way to lock up black people who were seen not to be in their “proper” place.
In 1868 Georgia established by law the convict lease system modeled after the Massachusetts system begun in 1798. Convicts could be leased to counties or county contractors for use on public works. In 1874 the Georgia law was altered to permit leasing convicts to private individuals and companies. By 1877, Georgia had 1.100 prisoners-994 (90 percent) of them were black.
In 1878, former Confederate Colonel Robert Alston. serving as state representative from DeKalb County, visited convict work camps all over the state. As head of the Committee on the Penitentiary he wrote a scathing report: “The lease system at best is a bad one, and seems to have been forced upon the State by an inability to provide for the great increase in the number of criminals growing out of the changed relations of labor. To turn the prisoners over to private parties, who have no interest in them except that which is prompted by avarice, is to subject them to treatment which is as various as the characters of those in charge and in many cases amount to nothing less than capital punishment with slow torture added.” Alston encouraged leading citizens to withdraw from the companies leasing convicts. Before long, a man who
leased convicts murdered Colonel Alston.
As difficult as it must have been in the harsh days of, the post-Reconstruction era,, the black community found various ways to protest the lease system. One of their methods was an annual memorial service and “decoration of the grave” for Alston as the first white person to “condemn and denounce the workings of the abominable, blasphemous and vile penitentiary lease system, under which so many of our race are doomed to horror, agony, and pollution.”
In 1908 the Georgia Prison Commission reported that, in the penitentiary and chain gangs combined, there were 4,290 Negro males, 209 Negro women, 461 white males, and six white women. In that same year a committee report to the legislature on corruption and cruelty in the lease system led the legislature to abolish the lease. After that, chain gangs worked on public works rather than for private individuals and companies. But abuses continued. One infamous warden used to send black trustees with a pitchfork to make the hogs squeal so that the townsfolk would not hear the human screams as the warden beat a prisoner with hosepipe. Submission to the “fate of the lower classes” seems to have continued as an agenda in the prisons.
In 1957, forty-one prisoners at the Buford Rock Quarry broke their own legs with their sledgehammers to protest harsh working and living conditions. When the investigations promised by prison officials never took place, a second and then a third group of prisoners broke their own legs. As recently as 1979, a number of prisoners at the Wayne County “Correctional Institution” cut their own Achilles tendons in protest of harsh and demeaning working conditions.
I will never forget my first visit to the Georgia State Prison at Reidsville in the spring of 1978. We drove onto the prison “reservation” and there, as far as I could see, were groups of men (mostly black) bent over working in the fields. Over them sat a uniformed white man on horseback with a rifle across his lap. I was utterly amazed; nothing in my formal education had prepared me to see this contemporary picture of slavery. Indeed, the privilege inherent in my formal education had contributed to my inability to see.
I did not realize then that slavery still existed as a legal institution in the United States. Most American citizens probably do not But as the Committee to Abolish Prison Slavery has said: “In any form, slavery dehumanizes, cripples, and destroys anyone who willingly, or unwillingly, partakes in its practice.” Prisons and prison slavery are crucial institutions in this country for controlling labor in the interest of the powerful few and to the benefit of all people of privilege.
It is beyond dispute that imprisonment rates have always gone straight up and down with rates of unemployment among the poor and especially people of color. But this has changed. Today, unemployment is at its lowest rate in recorded history, and crime rates have dropped dramatically, but still the imprisonment rate has continued to grow. What now drives the criminal control system is it crime and punishment but the drive to feed the vast Prison Industrial Complex which has been created to seek growing profits from prison labor. Within this monstrous system, creating even more political and social obfuscation, the phenomenon of privatization of prisons has now made marketable commodities of even prisoners themselves. To feed corporate profits, our legislative bodies have steadily passed harsher laws and longer mandatory sentences while the courts have dutifully imposed the draconian laws and turned a blind eye to selective enforcement and prosecution. The portrayal of “crime” by the corporate media feeds the process. Since prisons on local, state, and federal levels have become multi-billion dollar industries, an increasing number of individuals and institutions are dependent on their continued existence.
Prison slavery infects all of us, whether we make ourselves aware of its use or not. Prisons are off the beaten path for most people. Middle and upper class people have very little reason to know anything of prisons or prisoners except when it becomes a local issue. Just a few years ago, communities could be quickly whipped into a frenzy to keep a new prison from being built “in our neighborhood.” But with the frequently decimated economic base of small towns and rural areas and the increased “marketing” of prisons as an economic boon to small communities, many of these counties and municipalities now hire professionals to lobby the legislature and Departments of Corrections, begging them to put the next new prison in their area.
This marriage made in hell of racial polarization and discrimination with corporate greed has formed the bottom line of the Prison Industrial Complex and its devastating consequences.
The damage done to the human family by this unchecked pattern is inestimable. When a breadwinner is taken to prison her/his children often become wards of the state-by foster care or welfare. More often than not, prisoners are assigned to prisons far from family and community ties, so that relationships are usually at least damaged and sometimes completely broken. Because prisoners earn nothing, or nearly nothing; for their labor, there is no possibility of helping to support their own families or making reparations where appropriate. Millions of men and women and children are being “disappeared” from their communities, losing their families, their access to education and decent employment, and even the right to
vote when they are released. The situation becomes more complex by the day as we allow the prison industrial complex to be woven into our social, political, and economic fabric.
Pretending to be untouched by systems of degradation and dehumanization can only be a self-defeating game. Perhaps we had to come to this point to begin to face the futility and self-destructiveness of our corporate behavior. Perhaps it took this level of abuse of the system to make us stop and see that our basic document-namely the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution-is wrong as long as it allows penal slavery to replace chattel slavery.
It is time for a movement to take up the unfulfilled agenda of the nineteenth Century Abolitionists. The slaveholders who fought to maintain penal slavery in the Constitution understood that the criminal control system would be a lynchpin in the political economy of the post-Reconstruction South. It was later a basic underpinning of the Jim Crow system. In our day, the system of police, prisons, and courts are basic to any consideration of racial justice. We will not honestly confront race in our society until we take it on. Prison slavery must and will someday be abolished. Until then we will not even begin to take an honest look at how we might move toward fair labor practices, a living wage, and the ongoing task of dismantling the racism that infects our common life. It is the least we can do to be about the task of seeking human dignity and liberation for all of God’s children.
Rev. Murphy Davis is a partner at the Open Door Community, an Atlanta community of Christians who minister with the homeless and prisoners. Davis is coordinator of the Southern Prison Ministry.