400 Years Blog #20 – The Racist Legacy of Inmate Labor

Posted in: Leader's Blog
The 13th Amendment didn’t end slavery. It allowed it to continue “as a punishment for crime.” What better way to fill the labor shortage throughout the defeated confederacy? Authorities arrested formerly enslaved people at record rates for vagrancy, unlawful assembly, having a gun, making liquor, and other trivialities. Many were sentenced to hard labor.
From 1866-1872 the practice of “convict leasing” benefited state treasuries across the south. For example, 73% of Alabama’s entire 1898 revenue came from convict leasing. Racism, hidden behind a veneer of legality, fueled economic growth. As Angela Davis explained, “[b]y segregating people labeled as criminals, prison simultaneously fortifies and conceals the structural racism of the U.S. economy.”
From reconstruction until the depression, contractors who leased convicts treated them harshly. They cared little about who lived and who died. In The Wheel of Servitude, D.A. Novak details high death rates for these prisoners. For example, 45% of convicts leased between 1877-1879 in South Carolina died! Convict leasing was, according to Prof. Matthew Mancini, “one of the harshest and most exploitative labor systems known in American history.”
Louisiana had leased convicts, mostly black, since 1844. Some worked at the 8,000 acre private plantation called “Angola.” When it was converted into a prison in 1880, old slave quarters became prison cells. The work was brutal then, and it still is today. Although inmates are no longer formally leased, Angola is “a chilling picture of modern day chattel slavery,” according to Jaron Browne, an organizer with People Organized to Win Employment Rights.
The prison-industrial complex continues to supply workers to corporations. Given our history, and the fact that 70% of the imprisoned population are people of color, racism fuels prison work programs. Angela Davis, in “Masked Racism: Reflections on the Prison Industrial Complex,” points out that many businesses including IBM, Motorola, Microsoft, Boeing, and Nordstrom get cheap labor without the hassles of unions, strikes, health benefits, or unemployment insurance. They proudly proclaim this as a public service.
One company, Prison Blues, advertising products “made on the inside to be worn on the outside,” say they teach job skills to prisoners. Another prison contractor, UNICOR, declares that they provide inmates with employment because “the right to work is a human right….” Why do I hear the echoes of the words the Nazis wrote over the gates into the Auschwitz concentration camp: arbeit macht frei, “work makes you free?” Imprisonment is not the best way to teach job skills.
• Lesson #82: Slavery didn’t end legally with the passing of the 13th Amendment.
• Lesson #83: Mass arrests for many petty “crimes” provided many employers with convicts they could lease from the state.
• Lesson #84: The Louisiana prison plantation called “Angola” has a majority Black population and is nearly the size of Manhattan.
• Lesson #85: Some of our nation’s largest corporations profit from the labor of incarcerated workers, paying only a few dollars a day.
• Lesson #86: Corporations that use convict labor portray this policy as doing inmates and taxpayers a favor.
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