Saturday, August 25, 2018

America’s mass incarceration addiction

This is the season for inmate protests. Prisoner strikes are underway throughout the nation and in Canada to call attention to prison conditions and the exploitation of prison labor.

The strikes began on August 21 to mark the date in 1971 when Black Panther organizer George Jackson was killed by guards at San Quentin State Prison and will continue through September 9, the date on which the Attica prison riot started in upstate New York.  The actions will include work stoppages, boycotts of companies that exploit prison labor, sit-ins, and hunger strikes.

Mass incarceration is weighing on our beleaguered state budgets and devastating our civic health. We are able to admit we have a problem, but old habits seem impossible to break.

The argument that the criminal justice system works differently for whites and Blacks can be traced as far back as slavery when the legal system considered runaway slaves “fugitives for stealing property “— themselves!  From slavery onward, the criminal justice system has been used to strip Blacks of their liberty, dignity and citizenship. 

Freedom ain’t free

The Thirteenth Amendment, while abolishing slavery and involuntary servitude, permitted “slavery as a punishment”.   That was the loophole that accommodated former slaveowners and allowed them to circumvent the purpose of the amendment. The provision would lead to the criminalization, arrest and mass imprisonment of Blacks.
The South adopted a punishment system based on economic needs and the opportunity for the state to make money. This philosophy that took the form of a slavery model for rebuilding the war-ravaged economy and infrastructure was known as convict leasing.
Convict leasing provided prisoner labor to plantation owners and corporations anywhere in the United States that demanded their labor. Advocates of the system defended it as a human enterprise able to turn men and women who would offer nothing to society, into a financial gain for the state.

In order to assure that prisons were always filled, a number of ambiguous laws were created.  A Black man could be arrested if he failed to keep his head bowed in the presence of whites, looked a white person in the eye or dared to speak without permission.  It was against the law to be without a job, but employment was withheld from Blacks, so they were under constant threat of imprisonment. These restrictive, ambiguous laws that criminalized Blacks, replaced the Slave Codes; were the forerunners to the Black Codes and set the stage for Jim Crow.

Companies flocked to utilize this new cheap, mostly “Negro” labor. Living and working conditions were deplorable and  inmates were treated more like animals than human beings.  Driven by brutal torture, inmates dragged their chains through years of hard labor and far too frequently all the way to their graves.

Black women and children were not exempt from prison labor. Children as young as 6 years old were forced to work, while imprisoned women were not segregated from male inmates, making them vulnerable to sexual and physical abuse at the hands of both convicts and guards.

Author Douglas A. Blackmon wrote of the Credit: The Dollop.  system: 
“....this slavery did not last a lifetime and did not automatically extend from one generation to the next. But it was nonetheless slavery – a system in which armies of free men, guilty of no crimes and entitled by law to freedom, were compelled to labor without compensation....and were forced to do the bidding of white masters through the regular application of extraordinary physical coercion.” 
The system reaffirmed white feelings of superiority and helped maintain the racial hierarchy of southern society, so there was no oversight.  Prisoners were routinely killed, starved or worked to death with no fanfare.  They were simply replaced.
That is until Martin Tabert, a young white runaway, imprisoned  for hopping a freight train, was sent to work at a Florida turpentine camp where he was flogged to death. 
A courtroom account:
“Talbert labored in the Florida swamps cutting and clearing timber. He soon suffered from fevers, headaches and oozing sores. When Tabert failed to do his days work, “the whipping boss” propped him up on his swollen feet and flogged him about 50 times with a 5-foot leather strap. When “the whipping boss” finished hitting him, he was too weak to stand. With one foot on Tabert’s neck, he began whipping him again. And once again when he moved too slowly getting back in line.”
Another prisoner testified that when they got Tabert in the sleeping shack and removed his clothes 
"his skin was all off his back in one chunk from his shoulders to his knees”.... we knew he was dying.”
The leasing program was abolished in Florida in 1923 following the death of Martin Tabert but other forms of convict labor continued and still exist today…chain gangs, plantations and private prisons.  The clothes you wear might have been sewn by a prisoner, your eyeglasses, the desk that hold your computer and the fresh herbs you use to season your food…all brought to you by the incarcerated.  Many prisoners feel the work contributes to humanity.   With pay as low as 23 cents an hour, whose humanity are they talking about?
We oversimplify and minimize immoral events in order to legitimize history and the country’s very existence, but in fact, the United States of today is strongly linked to the values and premises on which it was founded; the genocide of indigenous peoples and slave labor in support of a capitalist infrastructure.  The pillars that support America have always been between conquerors and the conquered, masters and slaves, capitalists and workers.

The restrictive and discriminatory laws that criminalized Blacks after slavery are directly linked to today’s racial profiling, police brutality and the vast disparity in criminal sentencing.  Blacks continue to be dogged by a stereotype and American history that essentially penalizes African Americans just for existing.

America’s addiction to mass incarceration victimizes everyone. 

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