Slavery and Mass Incarceration Essay

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The institution of slavery dates back before written records. The term slave was originally a derivative from the historical French and Latin medieval word for Slavic people of central and Eastern Europe. [ (wikipedia, 2010) ] In North America, the class system is systematically at the root of every socioeconomic and political issue resulting in Super companies, multibillionaires and the formation of lobbyists and special interest groups; there always has and always will be the have and have-nots.

Unfortunately, for African Americans who have historically been the have-nots, that does not seem to have changed as evidenced by recent events like the Jenna 6. African Americans have a history uniquely intertwined with American civilization. Concerning chattel slavery in America, Blacks are still living through remnants of it redesigned to reflect a modern day perspective. An unknown author wrote if we are not careful history will repeat itself. This is true regarding the Prison Industrial Complex.

After the Emancipation Proclamation, very few slaves were free, only those slaves in states or territories under rebellion were freed. [ (PBS) ] After the south fell to the north at the end of the civil war all blacks were free from chattel slavery as it existed before the war but a new slavery quickly took its place. Black Codes and vagrancy laws took the place of slavery in the south after the civil war. Black codes were based upon black labor or the lack there of. Vagrancy laws were black crimes punishable by forced labor, in short, any behavior deemed inappropriate by whites.

Any white person could enforce these laws, these laws transformed into criminalization that led to legal segregation. During the introduction to my Race and Incarceration class, I learned that prior to the abolition of slavery 99% of Alabama prison population was white. After the black codes, the majority became Black. According to Wikipedia, whites make up only 30% of today’s prison population. This can be attributed to modern day Vagrancy laws and Black codes such as disenfranchisement laws, three strikes, and other disparities of the war on drugs.

For many slaves Christianity was a consolation from the torment and anguish of oppression. This would later be used against them rather than in their favor. Slavery in the Bible is sanctioned as an established institution. The very book that promised deliverance also encouraged servitude. Initially blacks were forbidden from even learning Christianity, especially reading the Bible. Slave owners feared the Bible would be misinterpreted as assuring equality for all. Christianity was used against them to keep order and rebellions down by appealing to their spirituality. (Frederick Douglass Introduction and Background on American Slavery) ] In Harriett Jacobs’s book, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, she tells of how the slave masters would put on a show for clergyman visiting the south for the first time and the clergyman despite having some thought that slavery was wrong playing right along with the slaveholder and the slaves themselves.

The clergyman runs and tells the abolitionists in the north that it is not all that bad in the south, the slaves are fine, they are receiving spiritual guidance and actually do not want to be free. She calls it a patriarchal institution”. Jacobs, 2004) In the documentary The Farm Angola where the warden personally takes a paternalistic approach to the reformation of prisoners under his care as well as with the overall day-to-day operation of the former slave plantation this is demonstrated more clearly. The warden, Burl Cain is similar to the clergyman in Jacob’s analogy. He reduced inmate on inmate violence and expanded the Bible College. He states, “We can teach them the skills and trade, read, write and all that, but we just made a smarter criminal unless we have a moral component with it”. “We should live free as Americans…

No one should be released from prison if someone is going to be afraid of them is his philosophy”. According to this philosophy all members of the KKK should be arrested for life or until they are morally uncorrupted to induce fear in the hearts of African Americans. (National Geographic , 2008) Religion plays a part in the prison system just as it did in slavery, it was morally wrong for slaves not to turn the other cheek, it was morally wrong for slaves not obey their master. In the bible, you have to repent of your sins in order to be forgiven, in order for the inmates to be granted parole they must repent of their sins.

Even their field duty is similar to the field slave versus the house slave, which the warden says is good for morale. The lowest job is the field job and the good job is in the house or in prison language “trustee status”. The warden describes it as a big plantation earlier in the movie because he says it is what it is, prison and inmates. (National Geographic , 2008) The warden also manages the farms multimillion-dollar enterprises. He claims to make the prison more like a normal city but bars and gates, men on horses with guns is nothing close to a normal city.

This naivete, if you want to call it that, completely ignores the many men wrongly imprisoned or inhumanely sentenced to death or life in prison. If the wardens silence instead of advocating for a fair justice system is what associates him with the clergymen in Jacob’s book. He knows everything that goes on in his prison just as those on the outside had a chance to look in he has a front row seat. In the opening scene, the inmates are preparing to bury a fellow inmate and there is a mixture of black and white inmates but they are singing an old Negro spiritual about not being chained and being free.

This irony implies that the prisoners as a whole relate to the psychological effects of bondage just as slaves did through music. All of the prisoners are slaves to the government that is oppressing them in this image, even up to their deaths. Other images and subtle references similar to the opening scene are made throughout the documentary such as the white female guard making reference to her job security because they keep coming in. Slavery was about economics as much as it was about superiority. Live leak, 2009) My opinion is that the references to chattel slavery was done to sensationalize the effects of the documentary and the stories of the prisoners to invoke thought into the viewers mind about the justice system in America the same way rebellions and riots evoked change in the political structure.

The documentary does not choose one side over the other but merely provides both sides for one to make a conclusion. The fact that the prison was an old slave plantation turned prison at the end of the civil war- beginning of the black codes, vagrant laws, etc. as an effect itself that leaves room for speculation. Is justice really justice? This is what comes to mind after hearing the stories of Vincent Simmons and Sean Vaughn. Simmons case is especially effective in evoking the slave memory because it is an exact replica of cases tried in the south where the offender was black and the victim white. The offender’s trial is already over before it begins because the color of his skin makes him guilty as charged and over a hundred years later this is still true. So what is the solution? Is it abolition of prisons?

Is it prison reform? Angela Davis discusses these issues in her book Are Prisons Obsolete. In the second chapter, she discusses the relation of slavery to the prison system as it relates to abolition. The deep roots of slavery reach far beyond the black and white; it is grounded in the heart of capitalism and white supremacy. In Davis’ article, Adam Hirsch tells of how Thomas Jefferson admitted he would not reduce slaves to working hard labor since this would not change their status. The same is true for poor whites, poor African Americans, poor Latinos, etc.

Most poor people are imprisoned for reasons related to their status and placing them in the same condition that made them categorized as criminals in the first place says a lot about the attempt to “reform” them. (Davis) Prison abolition is attainable if a revolution were to happen, that is what it would take to retrain the minds of Americans to envision life without prisons. The entire process of punishment and reformation would have to be wiped out for any real alternatives to have a chance. If the option of slavery were still viable, slavery would still exist in America today.

Ideologies such as Malcolm X’s the ballot or the bullet made it clear that anything but desegregation was unacceptable. That type of courage influenced others to join him and take a stand rather than sit back and wait on something to happen. The convict lease system was a product of post civil war attempts to retain slaves therefore keeping cheap labor and Blacks from being free. In Frederick Douglass autobiography, he states white men tried to escape punishment in prison by disguising themselves as blacks. This is a clear demonstration of race related justice and inequality.

Crime is still related to color today even after the civil rights acts and the race riots; evidence of this can be seen in racial profiling. Part of the reason for relation between race and justice is the convict lease system took over for the labor force in the south after the end of slavery; this was further enhanced by the invention of Jim Crow laws and the Thirteenth Amendment. The thirteenth amendment allowed involuntary servitude for punishment of crimes and was sanctioned by the government and American citizens. This also opened the door to criminality based on color.

Just like others before it new laws such as certification of minors as adults too subverted this. Black labor has not historically been out in the open for all to ponder in relation to the prison labor system, despite this, there is no difference in the chain gangs in prison and those in the convict lease system. The expansion of slavery is no different from the expansion and privatization of the prison industrial complex. At this rate, if we continue to ignore the ghastly trend towards regression where will we end up?

We must consider the effects of corporate prisons on the future of our children, the future of education, the future of our country overall. Such things as the 2000 election of George H. Bush is exactly what we have to look forward to in the future if a change besides electing a black president does not ensue. Assata Shakur is a modern day victim of racial injustice. She even refers her Autobiography as a modern day slave narrative. She discusses how there was a war between the north and south over industrialization that ended with several compromises including the Missouri compromise.

During Missouri’s petition to congress to be a Free State New Hampshire Representative Livermore asked, “How long will the desire for wealth render us blind to the sin of holding both the bodies and souls of our fellow men in chains? ” Missouri stayed a slave state but Maine entered a free state denying the inevitable but allowing for the Dredd Scott decision later in 1857 declaring it unconstitutional. The Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 repealed the Missouri compromise. (Succession Crisis) Abolition of slavery by the north was a tactic used to further capitalism in America; it was about economic not moral dilemmas.

There is an uncanny redundancy in the discussion of slavery as it relates to the prison industrial complex. Assata states: “For the Capitalists to control the economy and the political system, Slavery had to be defeated”. The same rings true for the Prison Industrial Complex and the Privatization of it. Privatization has turned punishment into a corporate issue instead of a legal issue. My professor Helen Jun PhD once said that the U. S. economy can stand the civil rights and capitalism can handle civil rights but black power called for a revolution and overhaul of economics. Shakur, 1987) My opinion of that statement was that neither the U. S. economy nor capitalism would be able to withstand the Black power movement, which is why it had to be stopped at all costs.

This included criminalizing black power leaders and incarcerating them in prisons with terrorist if they did not kill them outright: If you separate them, as they did with the slaves brought over from Africa, they lose communication becoming stagnant. Assata proclaims, “No movement can survive unless it is constantly growing and changing with times. She goes on to describe how it is imperative to have the people backing you. This is a tactic of the enemy- “to have our people hate us” she was referring to revolutionary leaders. (Shakur, 1987) In conclusion, the strength of the slavery analogy is that it calls for action from all races and gender. It suggests that as a whole, the human race is destined for failure and no man is safe. The idea of one man holding the life of another in his hands with the power to take everything away with one statement speaks volumes to the value of human life with regard to one another.

It shows us in relation to crabs in a barrel, we will continue tearing each other down just for a piece of what is rightfully owed to all humanity and that is peace. The weakness is that it does not have enough power to invoke real change. Many people do not relate with the slave analogy and do not feel motivated to risk anything stop the spread of it into more generations and generations. It has evolved to adapt to modern day changes such as new laws aimed at furthering its proliferation like the new drugs laws giving a drug dealer who is most of the time white as much if not more time than violent white offenders. This is not enough though because people are still coming out in numbers to support such bills. This must cease.


Davis, A. Are Prisons Obsolete. New York: Seven Stories Press. Frederick Douglass Introduction and Background on American Slavery. (n. d. ). Retrieved December 8, 2010, from Douglas life: http://webhome. broward. edu/~ygao/BCqmStandardsAnnotations/hennessey_Douglass1/Douglass14. html Jacobs, H. (2004). Incidents in the life of a slave girl. Modern Library. Live leak. (2009, June 26). The Farm: Angola Prison. Retrieved December 8, 2010, from live leak: http://www. liveleak. com/view? =956_1246041096 National Geographic . (2008). A decade behind bars: Return to the Farm. Retrieved December 8, 2010, from National Geographic Channel: http://channel. nationalgeographic. com/episode/a-decade-behind-bars-return-to-the-farm-4329/Overview42#tab-cain-profile PBS. (n. d. ). Emancipation Proclamation. Retrieved December 7, 2010, from PBS: http://www. pbs. org/wgbh/aia/part4/4h1549. html Shakur, A. (1987). Assata and autobiography. Lawrence Hill books. Succession Crisis. (n. d. ). Retrieved December 8, 2010, from The Missouri Compromise: http://civilwar. bluegrass. net/secessioncrisis/200303. html wikipedia. (2010,