Saturday, September 24, 2011

The Mimicking of the Slave System Structure in the Post-Emancipation Prison System

Kim Gilmore's "Slavery and Prison - Understanding the Connections," states: The transfer of power to the state signaled by the 13th Amendment profoundly reshaped the political landscape along with emancipation. By empowering the state to regulate relationships between private individuals, the state also gained the ability to determine the contours of freedom and unfreedom. The expansion of state jurisdiction thus had the dual effect of establishing legal rights for African Americans while paving the way for new, state-maintained structures of racism. Convict labor became increasingly racialized: it was assumed that blacks were more suitable for hard physical labor on Southern prison farms and on corporate railroad and construction company projects (Lichtenstein, 1996b). Contrary to popular representations of chain gang labor, not only black men, but also black women were forced to work on the lines and on hard labor projects, revealing how the slave order was being mirrored in the emerging punishment system. This mimicking of the slave system structure in the post-emancipation prison system, particularly in the South, suggested a belief that the performance of antebellum culture could bring the slave system back to life (Jackson, 1999). In Northern prisons, which had historically been structured around industrial rather than agricultural labor, racially based divisions were sharpened after emancipation as well. African Americans were criminalized for committing Black Code-type crimes and often were subject to tougher sentences than those imposed upon whites convicted of similar crimes (Du Bois, 1935).

Even though the efforts of ex-slaves and other abolitionists made it impossible to reinstall legalized chattel slavery, racialized labor arrangements persisted in the form of convict labor. Convict labor built the post-Civil War infrastructure in the U.S., not just in the South but also throughout the U.S., and the struggle to determine how free unfree labor would be continued. Labor unions, which had always been skeptical about prison labor, aggressively lobbied against the leasing of convicts to private corporations. Throughout the Depression years, unionists made it clear that an expanded use of prison labor would further imperil an already overfull work force and intervene in "free markets" in ways that threatened the stability of capitalism and laid bare its most excessive failures. Slowly, prisons and jails solved this problem by developing a "state-use" system in which prison labor was used solely for state projects. This solution eliminated the competition between convict labor and union labor, while still enabling convicts to offset their cost to the state (McGinn, 1993). The Prison Industries Reorganization Administration (PIRA), a New Deal project, conducted a massive study of prison labor in all 50 states and concluded by outlining this new state-use system. Citing overcrowding and inadequate facilities, the PIRA recommended the expansion of the prison system and the construction of new prisons in almost every state (Fraser and Gerstle, 1989). No clear statistics demonstrate that "crime," particularly violent crime, had increased during this period. Moreover, many of those who ended up in prison were criminalized for crimes stemming from unemployment, suggesting that if the state had had a handle on unemployment, there may not have been a need for more prisons. Thus, the PIRA embodied one of the many contradictions embedded in the "New Deal state" -- its inability (or unwillingness) to deal with its overabundance of labor. Thus, the PIRA, together with a racialized labor system that had roots in the slave system, cleared the path for the prison-industrial complex that has flourished in the post-World War II period.
Convicts picking cotton.

Given the links between the legacy of slavery and mass imprisonment of people of color in the U.S., it might be useful to examine how a few previous prison abolition movements positioned themselves in relation to this history. These groups were often led by Quakers or inspired by the Quaker abolitionists of the 19th century. One such group, the Committee to Abolish Prison Slavery (CAPS), was active in the late 1970s and early 1980s and saw the abolition of mass imprisonment as the key to completing the partial emancipation signaled by the 13th Amendment. According to CAPS, which produced Prison Slavery, their collaboratively authored book, the triumph of emancipation was not a total victory since the 13th Amendment legalized penal servitude as punishment for particular crimes, a stipulation that was incorporated into many state constitutions. Prison Slavery (Esposito and Wood, 1982:114) cites the significant 1871 court ruling from Ruffin v. Commonwealth. This landmark Virginia case--revealingly argued using the language of slavery -- set a precedent for state control of inmate bodies and labor:
United States Prisoners Picking Cotton

[1] For the time, during his term of service in the penitentiary, he is in a state of penal servitude to the State. He has, as a consequence of his crime, not only forfeited his liberty, but all his personal rights except those which the law in its humanity accords to him. He is for the time being a slave of the State. He is civiliter mortus; and his estate, if he has any, is administered like that of a dead man.

CAPS found much to admire in the 19th-century slave abolition movement, but viewed penal servitude as a new incarnation of slavery. The group critiqued the failure of abolitionists, particularly Quakers, who worked to overthrow the Southern slave regime but stopped short of eliminating the broader inequalities that were reflected in the prison system. CAPS was, essentially, struggling to define the continuing nature of unfree labor and was critical of the Quakers who preceded them for participating in class oppression.

Prison labor.

When Prison Slavery was published in 1982, many states still had clauses in their constitutions that deemed slavery and indentured servitude legal punishments or had no proviso about the legality or illegality of prison enslavement (some states eliminated any reference to slavery in the middle decades of this century). Since this 13th Amendment provision was, for CAPS, the legal cornerstone codifying prison slavery, they proposed a "new abolitionism" that would make the elimination of these clauses from all constitutions its goal. Their abolitionist strategies also included education campaigns to inform the public about prison conditions, an issue typically relegated to the sidelines of an individual's physical and psychic landscapes. The group also advocated boycotting consumer products made by prison labor, supporting alternatives to imprisonment, and working toward an acknowledgement of the class-based exploitation inherent in mass imprisonment. By circulating petitions that would amend state punishment clauses, CAPS created alliances between prisoners on the inside and activists on the outside. They learned of the brutalities that often occurred behind prison walls through testimonies from inmates who had developed their own analyses of prison system injustices, but frequently found themselves confined by the limited resources available to them, or constrained by criminal justice administrators and guards who threatened prisoners with violence for expressing their views and working for change. (source: History as a Weapon)





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