US prisons practice the same slavery and racism celebrated by Confederate monuments
On Aug. 11, white supremacists rallied in Charlottesville, Virginia, against the removal of the statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee. In the wake of that rally, which turned deadly when a rally-goer plowed his car into a group of counter-demonstrators, killing one and injuring 19 others, calls across Amerika to remove Confederate monuments have intensified.
Those monuments – over 1,500 of them – are being assailed because most were erected between the 1890s and 1920s – decades after the Civil War – not to honor the war dead, but rather to celebrate the reassertion of white supremacy across the South and the defeat of Reconstruction.
The mainstream media has closely covered these events and politicians who have been going on record with token renunciations of America’s past practices of white supremacy and slavery. However, both the media and political class have remained totally silent about the systemic practice of both slavery and racism by the U.S. government today as a core feature of its so-called criminal justice system – and the growing protest movement against it.
Actually, the Charlottesville events happened just a week before Aug. 19, the date of the planned mass rally in Washington, D.C., against mass imprisonment. This rally and the growing movement of which it is part are aimed at dismantling not merely symbols of past racism and slavery like Confederate monuments, but the 13th Amendment, which still authorizes slavery today and is directed predominantly against people of color.
Both the media and political class have remained totally silent about the systemic practice of both slavery and racism by the U.S. government today as a core feature of its so-called criminal justice system – and the growing protest movement against it.
The public is only just realizing
But who questions the legitimacy of imprisonment in Amerika? It’s supposed to be about removing from society and rehabilitating those who have been duly convicted of crimes, right? Not hardly.
From the Black Codes enacted across the South immediately after the Civil War to today’s drug war and “law and order” agendas, criminal convictions, enabled by the 13th Amendment, have been targeted predominantly and consciously at people of color – New Afrikans/Blacks in particular – to reproduce slavery.
This systemic racism and injustice has only recently begun to come to public attention. This began in part when the legal insider, past U.S. Supreme Court law clerk and civil rights attorney Michelle Alexander, published her exposé “The New Jim Crow”[i] in 2010, which revealed the methods by which the criminal justice system deliberately targets people of color for mass imprisonment and insulates itself from challenge.
Then came struggles launched by prisoners themselves against the systemic abuses of U.S. imprisonment, like the three historic hunger strikes led by Califo prisoners in 2011 and 2013, in which 6,000, 12,000, and 30,000 prisoners respectively participated. This effort brought international attention and opposition to the widespread use of the known psychological torture of solitary confinement.
Further collective acts of resistance followed, drawing more public awareness and support, including two prisoner-initiated work strikes; first in Texas in April 2016, then a nationwide strike in which tens of thousands of prisoners across Amerika participated beginning on Sept. 9, 2016 – a date chosen to commemorate the 1971 Attica prison uprising.
These work strikes succeeded in exposing the existence of antebellum-style slavery in U.S. prisons, a condition long concealed by the media and prisoncrats, while U.S. officials have long denounced human trafficking and slavery in other countries. Furthermore, the U.S. wrote and ratified Article 4 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights at the end of World War II, which outlaws all forms of slavery. Typical U.S. hypocrisy.
These exposures and prisoners’ resistance struggles engendered the budding outside movement against the abuses and slavery of U.S. mass imprisonment.
The documentary film “13th” by Ava Duvernay pinpointed the 13th Amendment as the 1865 Constitutional law that modified, but did not abolish, slavery. It only changed slavery from a status based exclusively on race to one imposed upon conviction of crimes. But the passage of the 13th Amendment did not end the racialized character of U.S. slavery. Instead, criminal laws were created and selectively enforced to target Blacks in particular.
These work strikes succeeded in exposing the existence of antebellum-style slavery in U.S. prisons, a condition long concealed by the media and prisoncrats, while U.S. officials have long denounced human trafficking and slavery in other countries.
Slaves of the state
At base, the 13th Amendment served to give the power to own and regulate slavery to the government instead of private persons, which made the condition more deadly for the enslaved than under private ownership. As Karl Marx observed, when slaves can be readily replenished from a relatively inexhaustible human pool, they are typically worked to death.
This is what the state did with convict slaves who were put to work on chain gangs, prison plantations and, most notoriously, leased out to private plantations and corporations.
The Southern versus Northern prison model
Texas led in implementing and expanding the convict slave model, which, like chattel slavery, has relied on retribution and brutality as the only viable method of enforcement. This model, which many Southern states followed, came to be known as the Southern prison model.
In parallel, a Northern prison model also arose, which had its birth in Pennsylvania’s Eastern State Penitentiary. This system, under the influence of Quakers, devised as a “humane” approach to imprisonment the use of solitary confinement to rehabilitate prisoners as penance for their wrongs; hence the name “penitentiary.”
However, the sensory deprivation of the Northern model proved no less inhumane than the Southern model and led to public opposition. Charles Dickens visited the penitentiary and wrote that the system was “cruel and wrong.” He observed that, “in its intention … it is kind, humane and meant for reformation,” but “I believe that very few men are capable of estimating the immense amount of torture and agony which this dreadful punishment, prolonged for years, inflicts upon its sufferers.”
Dickens concluded, “I hold this slow and daily tampering with the mysteries of the brain to be immeasurably worse than any torture of the body.”[ii]
In 1890, the Supreme Court found the Northern model’s solitary confinement to be unconstitutionally cruel and unusual. In reaching this conclusion, the court found its suffering torturous, that under it:
“A considerable number of prisoners fell, after even a short confinement, into a semi-fatuous condition, from which it was next to impossible to arouse them, and others became violently insane; others, still, committed suicide; while those who stood the ordeal better were not generally reformed, and in most cases did not recover sufficient mental activity to be of any subsequent service to the community.”[iii]
Dickens concluded, “I hold this slow and daily tampering with the mysteries of the brain to be immeasurably worse than any torture of the body.”
Regardless of this ruling, the use of solitary confinement continued, and spread at an unprecedented level during the post-1970s prison boom, which saw the construction of super maximum-security prisons and segregation units across the U.S. Today over 80,000 prisoners in Amerika are held in solitary confinement.
The Southern prison model, although more openly brutal than the Northern model, has received much less public exposure. The convict leasing system, for example, proved particularly barbaric. While the number of Blacks lynched in the South from 1880 to 1930 are counted by the Tuskegee Institute at 3,220, the number that died during the same period from the abuses of convict leasing were over 30,000.
The convict leasing system rivaled the German Nazi slave labor camps in cruelty and fatalities. As Robert Perkinson observed of just the Texas system:
“Recorded mortality rates in excess of 20 percent, in some instances, put U.S. Steel on par with German and Japanese companies that profited from slave labor in World War II. But while those corporations have been held to account, U.S. Steel has escaped unscathed. Although the Wall Street Journal recently probed the company’s shameful history, no reparations movement has emerged among former convicts or their descendants.”[iv]
While the number of Blacks lynched in the South from 1880 to 1930 are counted by the Tuskegee Institute at 3,220, the number that died during the same period from the abuses of convict leasing were over 30,000.
U.S. officials and the media have generally concealed the routine practice of brutality and slavery in Amerikan prisons. When they do talk about U.S. prisons and their functions, they are typically portrayed in idealistic terms drawn from the Northern model as institutions of rehabilitation and humane treatment, rather than as places of horrific abuse, mental retribution and slave labor modeled on the old Southern slave plantations.
Although aspects of both the Northern and Southern models co-exist in U.S. prisons, the Southern model has come to dominate. Here’s Perkinson again:
“[Texas prisons present] a uniquely harsh model of criminal justice, a regime of state-sanctioned punishment based on roughshod legal proceedings, racial subjugation, corporal punishment and unpaid field labor that has persevered into the 21st Century. Texas’s plantations are ‘probably the best example of slavery remaining in the country,’ reported a national corrections expert in 1978. Twenty years later, when I first started visiting Southern prisons, I reached the same conclusion. Nowhere else in turn-of-the-millennium America could one witness gangs of African American men filling cotton sacks under the watchful eyes of armed whites on horseback. Plantation prisons at Sugar Land, Huntsville and elsewhere have preserved the lifeways of slavery in carceral amber.
“For most of American history, Texas’s implacable punishment traditions relegated it to the margins of penology, a field devoted – in theory if not practice – to the ‘moral regeneration … of criminals.’ In the late civil rights era, however, as rehabilitation programs faltered, crime rates soared, and a new breed of politician discovered that crime, especially Black crime, galvanized white voters, Texas’s Lone Star became a guiding light. State after state began copying elements of what prison experts called the ‘Texas control model,’ while politicians looked with new fondness on the state’s severe sentencing statutes. Once dismissed as a ‘disgrace of Christian civilization,’ Texas became the template for a more fearful and vengeful society.”[v]
The racial divide
During the 1800s and early 1900s, when racism was openly practiced, the Northern model concept of “humane” and “rehabilitative” prisons was reserved for white prisoners, while the Southern model of brutal retribution and slavery was for Blacks and Mexicans.
In my experience, having been imprisoned in the majority white “Northern” prison system of Oregon from 2012-2013, and then in the majority Black and Mexican/Chicano “Southern” Texas and Florida prison systems from 2013 to the present, I’ve seen these models still applied along the same racialized lines.
In Oregon, prisoners are not forced to work, although those who do work are paid only pennies per hour. Oregon also emphasizes rehabilitation through a range of privileges and programs, while using particularly severe solitary confinement as discipline and segregation.
Texas, however, compels all its prisoners, except those with medical or mental health exemptions, to work without any pay. Many work on chain gangs or antebellum-style plantations where they plow, plant, tend and harvest a wide variety of crops, including cotton, using no tools except dull, primitive hand-held hoes. Extreme physical abuse by guards is the norm, so much so that the Texas federal courts have found a long-standing “culture of sadistic violence that … pervade[s] the Texas prison system” stemming from “the seeming inability of correctional officers to ‘keep their hands off prisoners.’”[vi]
This abusive culture is then supplemented by a severe system of solitary confinement that the courts characterized as “virtual incubators of psychoses – seeding illness in otherwise healthy inmates and exacerbating illness in those already suffering from mental infirmities.”[vii]
Florida, a notorious Texas wannabe, also forces its prisoners to work, most without any pay. Physical abuse, especially frequent violent killings of prisoners by guards, is probably worse than in Texas. In only two months of confinement in Florida’s prison system, I have talked to scores of prisoners, most of whom have been confined in the Florida Department of Corruption (FDC) for a decade or more, who have witnessed guards murder at least one prisoner, usually by group beatings and/or staged suicides – in effect, lynchings.[viii]
I have also had ranking FDC guards and even mental health staff boast, or admit knowledge of such killings. In fact, I was confronted on my first day in the FDC by a mob of guards making death threats against me.
FDC also imposes a particularly severe system of solitary confinement in its disciplinary and segregation (or “close management”) units, where prisoners are compelled to remain absolutely silent inside their cells under threat of disciplinary infractions: strip cells – being left in a completely empty cell for a minimum of 72 hours with nothing but a pair of boxers – and physical assault with gas up to a cell raid by an armored team of guards.
In my brief FDC confinement in solitary, I have witnessed all of these measures – except cell raids – used against prisoners repeatedly, simply for talking. I have been threatened with them numerous times for talking also.
It has been long recognized that extreme abuse is the only way prisoners can be compelled to remain absolutely silent. The experiment was tried in New York prisons in the 1800s, as in Pennsylvania. Although the two Northern systems differed in certain respects, New York’s was more extreme, and unworkable, in attempting to enforce absolute silence.
“Whatever their differences, the New York and Pennsylvania systems proved foundational not only as blueprints of penitential discipline, but for the failures they produced. With their strict prohibitions undermined by congregate temptations, New York’s prisons were especially prone to disorder. Silence, managers discovered, could only be maintained by force. Whipping is ‘very frequent, and the least fault is punished with its application,’ noted Beaumont and Tocqueville.”[ix]
In this context, the extreme abuse and killings of Florida prisoners by guards is inevitable.
Modern slavery nothing new
Today’s U.S. mass imprisonment is no more legitimate than, and is just as scandalous as, the old trans-Atlantic slave trade and in many respects they are analogous.
The old system saw millions of Afrikans hunted, kidnapped and transported in the holds of ships to be enslaved in the Americas – a process which caused Afrika to suffer, just as with Black communities today under mass incarceration, massive depopulation and social destabilization.
Police operate much like the slave catchers. The judges, prosecutors and court appointed “defense” attorneys operate as the slave auctioneers and traders who keep the inexhaustible supply of human bodies cycling into Amerika’s slave camps. The jails and sheriffs operate as the slaveholders who confine the slaves until they are “sold.”
Once “sold” into prison, the guards and administrators are the overseers. As for who the “owners” are, the U.S. Supreme Court made this clear in its 1871 ruling of Ruffin v. Commonwealth, where it held that prisoners are “slaves of the state.” As said, this is the only change that the 13th Amendment made to slavery – the state instead of private persons became the owner and regulator of slaves.
All that is required today to “sell” one into slavery is the technical “conviction” of a crime – a process that is as vile and arbitrary as are the conditions under which prisoners are held.
Today’s U.S. mass imprisonment is no more legitimate than, and is just as scandalous as, the old trans-Atlantic slave trade and in many respects they are analogous.
In a 2016 article in Prison Legal News magazine, Chris Hedges exposed the downright corrupt method by which the vast majority of U.S. prisoners are “convicted” of crimes. Rather than being tried and convicted by a jury of one’s peers as the Constitution assures every person charged with a serious crime, 97 percent of federal convictions and 95 percent of state felony convictions are produced by the accused being coerced and threatened by court-appointed defense attorneys, working in collaboration with prosecutors and judges, into pleading guilty – a process euphemistically called “plea bargains,” “plea negotiations” etc.
In most cases, the prosecutors lack sufficient evidence – or any evidence at all – to convict the accused. But because the accused can’t afford to hire an attorney who will genuinely fight for them as the laws require, millions are cycled into U.S. prisons and reduced to slavery.
At every level and stage, the U.S. criminal (in)justice system is illegitimate and but a continuation of the long train of evils that Amerika was founded and built on: Native genocide, land theft, slavery, racism, systemic poverty, a campaign of continental conquest – all the same aspirations and methods of the German Nazis for which they are universally reviled. But only because unlike Amerika – from whom the Third Reich drew its inspiration – the Nazis failed.
Like the monuments on display across Amerika, such as those of Confederate general and Ku Klux Klan founder Nathan Bedford Forrest, who regained his fortune after the Civil War using convict labor, slavery today in the 13th Amendment must be dismantled and relegated to the museums where their full and true histories should be taught.
Although the call to amend the 13th Amendment has only just begun to resonate with those in society, this has been a founding proposal of the New Afrikan Black Panther Party. In 2006, we wrote:
“The mostly Black, Hispanic and Native American prison populations [in Amerika] are ground down by cruel and unusual punishment while being denied a political voice and basic human rights and dignity and are subjected to exploitation by the multinational corporations as a cheap labor force. This has nothing to do with rehabilitation. You can’t teach citizenship through slavery!
“To put an end to this cruelest of oppressions and violation of the inalienable rights of the people, we call for the immediate amendment of the 13th Amendment to end slavery for all and the extension of universal suffrage to all, including prisoners. We declare all elections not based upon full universal suffrage to be invalid and powers not derived from the consent of the governed to be usurpations.”[x] 
Many prisoners embraced this call and it is now being taken up by the general public, who are slowly awakening to the reality that slavery and its targeting people of color and the poor is still in wide practice in Amerika.
It is as evil an institution today as it was 152 years ago, when it was portrayed as having been abolished, but wasn’t. Instead, it was enshrined in the 13th Amendment and continued as a hidden practice behind walls of concrete, steel and razor wire, where the public could not see.
We must build and continue the struggle until this “peculiar institution” has been completely demolished.
Dare to Struggle! Dare to Win!
All Power to the People!
Send our brother some love and light: Kevin “Rashid” Johnson, 158039, FSP, P.O. Box 800, Raiford FL 32083.
[i] Michelle Alexander, “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration and the Age of Color Blindness” (N.Y.: The New Press, 2010/2013)
[ii] Charles Dickens, “American Notes” (Greenwich Connecticut: Fawcett, 1961) pp. 112-13
[iii] Ex Parte Medley, 134 US 160, 168 (1890)
[iv] Robert Perkinson, “Texas Tough: The Rise of America’s Prison Empire” (New York: Metropolitan, 2010)
[vi] Ruiz v. Johnson, 154 F. Supp. 2d 975, 987-88 (S.D. Tex. 2001)
[vii] Ibid. at p. 984
[viii] The FDC has been repeatedly featured in the media concerning questionable prisoner deaths and in 2014 was cited for a record number of deaths. See, for example, Greg Allen, “Record Number of Inmate Deaths Has Florida Prisons on the Defensive,” All Things Considered (National Public Radio, March 18, 2015, 5:56 PM ET).
[ix] Op cit, note 4, quoting Gustave de Beaumont and Alexis de Tocqueville, “On the Penitentiary System in the United States and Its Application in France,” trans. Francis Lieber (Philadelphia: Carey, Lea & Blachard, 1833), p. 73
[x] Kevin “Rashid” Johnson, “A Modest Proposal for the Abolition of Slavery in the 21st Century” (2002), Rashidmod.com