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400 Years a Slave

By Mariam H. Jalloul

In 1866, a Yazoo Delta planter said, “I think God intended the n—— to be slaves. Now since man has deranged God’s plan, I think the best we can do is keep ’em near to a state of bondage as possible.”

One hundred and forty-eight years later, his ghastly words echo in America’s incarceration epidemic, evidenced by the systematic imprisonment of African Americans. A new form of slavery exists today in the U.S., targeting the same population it did hundreds of years ago, only shrouded under the veil of the prison system. As Tupac put it, “The penitentiary is packed, and it’s filled with blacks.”

I will not equate the injustices of slavery with that of current prisons—doing so trivializes and understates the horrors of the slavery system. It is important, however, to acknowledge the weight that slavery held in shaping the current mass incarceration. Moreover, it is important to recognize the parallels between America’s past systematic oppression of African Americans and its present one.

When my teachers discussed the post-emancipation period, they highlighted the Reconstruction and Jim Crow eras. But I never learned about the imprisonment system that the South established in a desperate attempt to clutch onto their white supremacy, called “convict leasing.” In fact, our Constitution, our beloved 13th Amendment, substantiated the creation of that system. The 13th 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.” I never paid mind to the clause stating that slavery is legal in the U.S. as long as it is a penalty for a crime.

As David Oshinsky expounds in his book, “Worse Than Slavery,” convict leasing was worse than slavery itself in many aspects. After the ratification of 13th amendment, Southern plantation and company owners desperately needed a source of cheap or free labor to maintain their profit. So the South set up a series of vagrancy laws, arresting newly freed slaves for petty offenses—for example, legislation required black men to have jobs or else be considered “vagrants” and sent to jail. With almost no employment opportunities, many were convicted and sent to private plantation owners and corporations as punishment. There, they were to labor for the owners’ benefit. Having made little to no monetary investment in the convicts they leased, and with replacement labor readily available upon the death of a worker, plantation owners had no incentive to preserve their “property” as slave owners had in the past. Consequently, a higher rate of African Americans died under the convict-leasing system than under slavery.

The same post-emancipation desire to subjugate black Americans that birthed convict leasing continues today: Our justice system is perpetuating racial inequality. Many African Americans grow up in areas of concentrated disadvantage, where crime runs rampant due to economic and social isolation. Members of this population, often marginalized and punished for their actions at a harsher degree than white Americans, are not afforded equal opportunities for upward social mobility. When African Americans make up nearly 1 million of the 2.3 million incarcerated people in America, when black American are four times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than white Americans, and when one in 15 black males is incarcerated compared to one in 106 white males, the issue goes beyond social or economic disadvantages—this is a trend of systematic targeting and institutionalized racism in our legal system.

The same spirit of persecution and profit that gave life to slavery is salient in the prison industry. In fact, there are greater racial disparities in private prisons than in publicly run prisons, according to a recent study by Christopher Petrella. What’s more, there is a higher proportion of black men in for-profit prisons than in state-run prisons, and the reason is alarming: Private prison companies strategically house younger, healthier inmates in order to avoid high medical costs. And although this disparity is caused by financial incentive rather racial motivation, there is no denying that overarching social and political measures—such as the war on drugs that disproportionately targets poor communities of color—play a crucial role in sending these younger males to private prisons. Prisoners have become commodities to private, for-profit companies such as the Corrections Corporation of America, which benefit from the subjugation of others. This is almost the definition of modern-day slavery.

Before we can discuss prison reform, we must first reflect on how we think about prisoners or inmates. We see them as the “other”—independent from us. When we start viewing them as evildoers or sinners or degenerates whom we want off of our streets, we begin to see them as less than what they are: humans. We are more concerned with punishing those who break a law than we are with the injustice of corporations profiting off of the imprisonment of humans. We are more fixated on sending these people to prison than we are in enacting social change that will prevent them from ending up there to begin with. Before we can begin to address issues surrounding “post-racial” America, we must first work toward a post-slavery America.

Mariam H. Jalloul ’16, a Crimson editorial writer, is a sociology concentrator in Mather House.

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