This whole idea of slavery started to occur to me after seeing news reports of the disabled being paid subliminum wage and mass casualty fires and building collapses in places like Bangladesh. Garment workers toil long hours under terrible conditions for low pay. It struck me and I read someone else suggest this just moved slavery from our vision. "Fiddledeedee, I'll think about that tomorrow!"
African Americans continue to suffer the effects of enslavement even today. I knew that slavery didn't end with the civil war. It changed to mass incarceration of people of color coupled with segregation and culminated with the drug wars began in the 1980's.
In his book, Slavery by another name : the re-enslavement of Black people in America from the Civil War to World War II, author Douglas Blackmon (yeah, great name huh? He's white too!) tells of how the south denied former slaves their liberty. Using court documents and historical letters, Blackmon describes a post civil war south that continued forced labor by means of incarceration. Thousands of men and women, ill equipped for a free life, got duped into jail and then "sold" to companies as prison labor.
White men would stop healthy looking young black men and charge them with vagrancy or some other petty crime. Once jailed, other white men would prosecute, judge and sentence them to a fine these people could not pay. They would then be required to perform forced labor until their fine was paid off. Jailers would tack on fees for room and board, growing a six month "sentence" to an incarceration term of years. All for basically "walking down the street while black."
The prison documents often failed to include what crimes a person was convicted of or the term of their sentences. They were just cogs in the machine. If they broke, the system would just find a replacement.
Blackmon goes on to say this treatment made slavery look kind in comparison. As slaves, people had monetary value as livestock. Though this is demoralizing, it means there's less incentive to injure or starve your assets. Labeling prisoners as "bad" gave those jailing black people an excuse to abuse them.
These practices got the attention of the federal government in the early 20th century and several white men were prosecuted and fined. Some were jailed, but many refused to pay. Since the people enforcing such fines were the very people who jailed the prisoners in the first place, hardly any whites suffered any punishment at all.
With the advent of mechanization of labor and after World War II, blacks began to move away from the harsh treatment from southern states. These practices ebbed. Segregation began to repress people of color. Through legal battles and legislation, slowly blacks gained standing as fully engaged citizens of the United States. Still, few white men abusers and oppressors suffered any consequences.
Imagine watching a white man hurting your friends and neighbors and knowing that he'll get very little punishment. Imagine having your whole community accused of being "uppity" just for asking for your turn at opportunity. Might you not reason there's a high chance of you going to jail on a bogus trumped up charge and might you decide that if you are going to jail, you might as well live it up and do a crime? I'm very law abiding and I can imagine it.
In The new Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander suggests that drug laws and unfair sentences created from the drug wars of the 1980s continue the legacy of repression of the African American community. Different rules for powder and crack cocaine sale along with mandatory sentence differences keep more blacks in prison. Many states also ban felons from voting.
Prisons charge inmates more for toiletries and other personal items and the "store" has a monopoly on their business. Though the reasons for this involve many legitimate concerns, it just pushes more financial burden onto an already impoverished population.
States have similar programs. Prisoners with a financial obligation to pay for their crimes are required to pay 50 percent of their wages to reimburse victims. Working while in jail does benefit inmates by giving them skills and it alleviates the boredom.
Shouldn't prison industries be subject to the same rules as non prison employers? There's a mechanism for garnishment outside of jail. How can it be fair to anyone inside or outside the system to pay people less? Victims would get paid sooner, prisoners would no longer be treated as slave labor, outside contractors wold be able to compete fairly on labor and it would remove the incentive to keep skilled workers jailed.
People who do bad things need to be taught to stop doing those bad things. But what we have now, are warehouses for slaves. For half the cost, drug treatment and life skill training centers could replace most non violent offender rolls. The echoes of slavery persist because few people ever consider the reasons for over representation of ethnic minorities in prison. Most of us just think, bad people go to jail. Good people avoid it.
Even people in the black and Latino community blame things like drugs for the problem. They may form groups that try and change minimum mandatory sentencing or efforts to end prison overcrowding. All valuable concerns, but these groups fail to realize how much bigotry still drives the jail system. This system that should have been dismantled 150 years ago persists in repression of minorities.
How about we do as I suggested above? We start shifting toward parity in incarceration and creating cheaper true rehab for drugs and life skills? Baltimore, Maryland is doing it with juveniles. They have conflict resolution programs where they bring together all parties to a conflict and everyone works toward a solution. We can be a better country and live Dr. King's dream.