Race in America: 13th

Last night, I watched a documentary film, directed by Ava DuVernay and entitled 13th, named after the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Ostensibly, the Thirteenth Amendment outlawed and eliminated slavery. The film convincingly argues slavery was preserved and sustained through mass incarceration of people of color.

DuVernay argues that the words of the Thirteenth Amendment have been twisted by what she calls the prison industrial complex. The amendment reads as follows:

“Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”

DuVernay posits that the words I’ve highlighted above have been used as a means of perpetuating slavery and controlling people of color. Her presentation offers a compelling argument that institutional racism is not simply a byproduct of prejudice and bigotry but, rather, an intentional mechanism to overcome the prohibition against slavery.  Data she incorporates into the documentary provide ample evidence to convince me that she is right. Assuming her numbers are correct (and I do make that assumption), the U.S. accounts for just five percent of the world’s population, yet the country accounts for twenty-five percent of incarcerated individuals worldwide. More than sixty percent of people in prison in the U.S. are people of color. Corrections Corporation of America and other for-profit prison management companies have contributed heavily to the American Legislative Action Council, a conservative assemblage of legislators and their corporate financiers, writing laws making incarceration of people of color a money-making opportunity. The “war on drugs” launched by the Nixon administration and supported by administrations since has treated people of color differently from others. For example, possession of crack cocaine, a cheaper product than powder cocaine and therefore easier for people of limited means to obtain, landed people in prison for life, whereas sentencing guidelines were much more lenient for suburban white users of the powdered form.

The prison population skyrocketed after the war on drugs was declared: 357,292 inmates in 1970; 513,900 in 1980, 2.3 million today. The Black community improperly bore huge proportions of the increases.

Prisoners today are used to produce products sold by many companies whose names most of us would recognize.  While some companies may have stopped the practice of contracting with prisons for product manufacture, in the past (and possibly today), Walmart, Victoria’s Secret, companies involved in telecommunications, and many others benefit from mass incarceration. In one example, the specifics of which I can not recall, a telecommunications company charged outrageously high rates for outgoing telephone calls home by inmates; in order to make a ten minute call, I believe, an inmate had to work three hours at a tiny hourly wage to pay for the call.

I am not a Pollyanna. I realize many people in prison are bad folks who need to be kept behind bars to protect society. But I cannot accept that a one-time user of crack cocaine with no other convictions of any kind should be put in prison for life without possibility of parole. The minimum sentencing laws, ostensibly adopted as harsh means of dealing with a scourge threatening this country, created a monstrous system of oppression. The massive numbers of people unjustly incarcerated for so long presents an enormous problem for society; we’ve warehoused these people and haven’t attempted to rehabilitate them or give them marketable skills, so releasing them without massive aid probably would boomerang. Yet keeping nonviolent offenders in prison under utterly unjust and oppressive sentences is just as bad or worse. I don’t have an answer. But I believe we must hold our political leaders’ feet to the fire and demand they address these injustices.

I encourage everyone to watch 13th. It’s available on Netflix. Invest one hour and forty minutes to learn what people of color, especially Blacks, deal with in society today. It is a sickening embarrassment. It won’t stop until White America joins with people of color to demand the dismantling of the prison industrial complex and the undoing of public policies that effectively subject a large proportion of our population to involuntary servitude as a means of enriching corporations and the politicians who reap the rewards for their obedience to their corporate masters.

About John Swinburn

"Love not what you are but what you may become."― Miguel de Cervantes
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