Freedom. Something that is celebrated in America, and rightfully so. According to the Constitution, we have freedom of speech, religion, and the right to pursue happiness. We take pride in that. But what if I told you that there was a population of people in the United States that were exempt from almost all of those freedoms? Would you be angry? Confused? Let me explain.
If you’re familiar with American history at all, you know that at one point having slaves was perfectly legal and celebrated. You also know that in 1865, the 13th Amendment was published, abolishing slavery as we knew it. A major victory for America. Let’s take a look at what it says:
“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.”
Okay, no more slavery! Yay! Wait. Read that again. Did you catch it?
“Except as a punishment for crime..” Why is that such a big deal? You broke the law, you deserve to be punished. Absolutely. But does anyone deserve to be a slave? Let’s look at the cultural context of this amendment.
It’s 1865. African American slaves are freed- sort of. Jim Crow Laws are enforced and admired. Movies and newspapers make profit off of terrorizing the white community- painting black men as monsters. As people who will rape your wives and murder your children just for the fun of it. If you don’t believe me, take a look at the film, “A Birth of a Nation,” a film critically acclaimed at its time as one of the best movies in cinematic history.
So, naturally, white people are afraid. Police respond to community outcry by arresting black men in alarming numbers, causing the first wave of mass incarceration. Essentially, black people were either being hunted down, lynched in their backyards, or being arrested for petty crimes and put in jail for life. Right back into slavery. Legal slavery.
Fast forward to the “War on Drugs.” Minimum sentences and the ‘three strike’ rule were enforced for the first time. You could do as much time for possession of crack cocaine as you could for first degree murder. But why? What good is it doing to give someone a life sentence for a non-violent crime? Remember that saying, “money makes the world go ’round,”?
You see, prison is not a government program. It is not rehabilitation. It is an industry. And a cruel one at that. You are robbed of all of your human rights, socialization, and experience sensory deprivation before you even see a judge. You are forced to stand naked in front of a complete stranger before you even have a place to sleep. Unless you’re rich enough to afford bail. Where do you think this bail money goes? You certainly don’t get it back, nor does it lessen your sentence.
Let’s say you can’t make bail, or are found guilty of your crime. You then are forced to either stay in a cage for the majority of the day, or do hard manual labor for free. I’m not talking about picking up trash on the side of the road. I’m talking about making the materials of your favorite clothes. Hammering the license plates that sit on the back of your car. We are outraged at the thought of Chinese sweat shops, but look away at the sweatshops that are in our own backyard. It’s easy. It’s all we’ve ever known.
This isn’t a matter of opinion. Prisoner is another word for slave, according to the 13th amendment. Where are my ‘All Lives Matter’ people at now? People, human beings, are being kept in conditions that you would feel guilty for putting your dog in. Most of them waiting years for a trial. An 8 by 9 box with no windows, a steel toilet, and iron bars that lock from the outside. An hour of sunlight a day. Food that could be disguised as pig slop. You’re treated like an animal. You’re treated like an inferior species. You’re treated like a slave. You are a slave.
Okay, but let’s say that doesn’t pull on your heartstrings enough and you can still justify our current prison system. ‘You do the crime, you do the time.” Sure. But what happens after you do your time? Think about every important application that you’ve ever filled out in your life. College, Jobs, Rent, Housing, Loans. Do you know what question they all ask? “Have you ever been convicted of a crime?” How are these people supposed to get their lives back on track after they’re released from prison if their crime follows them wherever they go? Does this perhaps encourage former inmates to go back into their communities and be a productive citizen? No. It encourages them to go back into the system. Which is what keeps the prison industry alive and well.
Let me make something clear: I am not against paying consequences for breaking the law. I am not against law enforcement. I am against slavery. This is not a political post.
I really didn’t want to make this solely about race, but as an ally and an advocate, I am going to leave you with some statistics about mass incarceration.
Black men make up 6.5% of the general population. Yet, they make up over 40% of the prison population.
It is estimated that 1 in 17 white men will be incarcerated in their lifetime. It is also estimated that 1 in 3 black men will be incarcerated in their lifetime. Could this be a reflection of systemic racism in our country? It’s almost undeniable.
The industry of prison and mass incarceration effects all communities. But it started with the 13th amendment, Jim Crow, and the villainizing of People of Color.
Land of the free.
For more information on this topic from people way smarter than me, I recommend you watch the documentary titled, “13th” on Netflix.