The Prison-Slavery Connection

The Prison-Slavery Connection

The words of the 13th Amendment connect the institutions of prison and slavery. That constitutional amendment outlawed chattel slavery of African-Americans but preserved involuntary servitude for those duly convicted of crimes. In other words, prisoners can be sentenced to hard labor and are not entitled to compensation for their involuntary servitude. The 13th Amendment draws a line between slavery one does not deserve and slavery one has earned through criminal behavior.

There has always been a connection between criminals, prisoners and slaves. Prisoners and slaves are the lowest-ranking segments of a society. Criminal punishment throughout history sometimes involved being sold into slavery. Indentured servitude in North American colonies commonly resulted from convictions for petty crimes in Britain and other European countries. Ancient societies enslaved destitute debtors and war captives.

The roles of prison and slavery changed dramatically with the abolition of chattel slavery and the exponential growth of modern incarceration in America. But the similarities are still there. Some things never change. Prisoners and slaves live under the strict control of others, tend not to be well-educated, have markedly reduced freedom, often dream of escape and survive at the bottom rung of society. Wardens and slaveholders seek to keep their charges out of trouble. Slaveholders in the U.S. worked their slaves, but wardens in modern times do not often have that option, because restrictive legislation strongly inhibits prison industries and labor.

As a percentage of population, the United States incarcerates five (5) times more prisoners than the world as a whole imprisons. We incarcerate African-Americans at much greater rates than other races. This leads to the observation that mass incarceration in America amounts to “New Age slavery.” A perpetual vicious cycle seems to rule. Slavery in its different forms dies a hard death. It’s more than a single institution. Instead, it’s another way of saying that there will always be a bottom class. The lowest, most vulnerable or least powerful segments of society will often serve involuntarily. Revolutions and turmoil create new elites and different slave classes. Communist, fascist and other regimes sent millions into slave labor or extermination camps. International trafficking in persons now results in millions of slaves, unfortunates who labor under very difficult conditions, some as sex objects. Countries without law and order permit more enslavement. Some people always occupy the lowest level of society and are kept there by force.

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Prisons come in different forms. Some are rows of cells stacked on top of each other. Others are work camps, former plantations or minimum security housing complexes. Slaves also come in different guises. Slaves can be farm laborers, prostitutes, debtors, industrial workers or domestic servants. Slaves can be of the highest moral character or the lowest. Slavery can be deserved or undeserved.

One thread running through slavery is the power differential between masters and slaves. That enslaving power can be legal or illegal, driven by different motives and applied with varying techniques. Slavery has existed in the worst tyrannies imaginable and in the United States of America after Americans espoused and selectively practiced the highest ideals of liberty and equality. The involuntary servitude we see in America today is most often incarceration. A criminal duly convicted of a crime becomes an involuntary servant or slave, although now we call our slaves “prisoners.” If we view “slavery” as the lowest social echelon, we must accept that some group always lives at the bottom.

Right now, that lowest social strata is a prison and jail population of 2.3 million Americans and a national correctional population, including those on probation and parole, of 7.3 million. We ought to judge a nation by the way it treats the least of its people. Some form of slavery or involuntary servitude appears inevitable in highly stratified cultures. The critical questions are how we create and treat our involuntary servants.