Forced to Work for Pennies: Colonizing the Black Body in 2017

What is likely unknown to most Americans and the-world-at-large, is that the prison system in the US has shifted increasingly from inmate rehabilitation and reform, to using prisoners for extremely low-wage labor that benefits large wealthy corporations.  This is an old problem that has grown exponentially in recent decades, allowing private prisons in the US to legally force inmates to work (see video below) for as little as 2 cents an hour.  And according to a 2013 report [PDF] by the US Dept. of Justice, nearly 20% of the federal prison population in the US live and work in private prisons, and almost 7% of the U.S. state prison population is confined in private prisons.

In a deep, investigative article published in 2010, Daily Kos identified several hundred well-know companies using prison labor, whose names include ExxonMobil, Eli Lilly & Company, GlaxoSmithKline, Merck & Company, Inc., Pfizer, K-Mart, Chevron, Sprint and Verizon.

With the Black population in the US being around 13% and the Black population in the prison system being more than 50%, is it any wonder that the penitentiary is often cited as a form of re-enslavement of African-Americans?

In 2011, I conducted a podcast interview with Harvard professor, Dr. Khalil Gibran Muhammad, who was formally the director of the Schomburg Center (NYC), and is the author of The Condemnation of Blackness: Race, Crime, and the Making of Urban America.  One of the most striking things Dr. Muhammad said was that in the 20th century Blackness was refashioned into “the idea of Black criminality,” and that:

“The US prison population is larger than at any time in the history of the penitentiary anywhere in the world. Nearly half of the more than two million Americans behind bars are African-Americans, and an unprecedented number of black men will likely go to prison during the course of their lives. These grim statistics are well known and frequently cited by white and black Americans; indeed for many they define black humanity. In all manner of conversations about race – from debates about parenting to education to urban life; black crime statistics are ubiquitous. By the same token, white crime statistics are virtually invisible….”

Also in 2011, for I had the opportunity to speak with Michele Alexander, civil liberties attorney and author of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.  I was one of the first to interview Alexander, and it was a powerful and revealing conversation.

Alexander begins in the introduction of her book with an all-too-common story about the ongoing disenfranchisement of African-Americans, telling the story of a guy named Javious Cotton:

“Jarvious Cotton cannot vote. Like his father, grandfather, great-grandfather, and great-great-grandfather, he has been denied the right to participate in our electoral democracy. Cotton’s family tree tells the story of several generations of black men who were born in the United States but who were denied the most basic freedom that democracy promises … Cotton’s great-great-grand father could not vote as a slave. His great-grandfather was beaten to death by the Ku Klux Klan for attempting to vote. His grandfather was prevented from voting by Klan intimidation. His father was barred from voting by poll taxes and literacy tests. Today, Jarvious Cotton cannot vote because he, like many black men in the United States, has been labeled a felon and is currently on parole.”

And further, Whitney Benns wrote and article for The Atlantic magazine in 2015, entitled “American Slavery, Reinvented, in which he writes the notorious Angola prison saying in part that:

“Angola’s [Prison] farm operations and other similar prison industries have ancestral roots in the black chattel slavery of the South. Specifically, the proliferation of prison labor camps grew during the Reconstruction [Redemption] era following the Civil War, a time when southern states established large prisons throughout the region that they quickly filled, primarily with black men. Many of these prisons had very recently been slave plantations, Angola and Mississippi State Penitentiary (known as Parchman Farm) among them. Other prisons began convict-leasing programs, where, for a leasing fee, the state would lease out the labor of incarcerated workers as hired work crews. Convict leasing was cheaper than slavery, since farm owners and companies did not have to worry at all about the health of their workers

In this new era of prison industry, the criminal “justice” system, the state determined the size of the worker pool. Scores of recently freed slaves and their descendants now labored to generate revenue for the state under a Jim Crow regime.”

Within the article is a 13-minute video from a documentary produced by The Atlantic, which can be see below:

As well, it’s worth mentioning that today’s opiod crisis, which grabbed headlines this month, must be contextualized within The War on Drugs and mass incarceration – two things that grew respectively out of Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton’s presidential tenure.  In an article published last year at Ebony Magazine, Kassandra Frederique, who is the New York State Director for the Drug Policy Alliance, connects the dots by writing that:

“Every year, hundreds of thousands of family and friends bury loved ones because of the ongoing opioid overdose crisis happening across the Unites States— a crisis that could have been largely prevented. Researchers and health professionals link today’s predicament to the explosion of opioid prescriptions in the 1990s when there was an increased prescription drug usage of medications to treat pain like OxyContin and from youth experimentation.

Now, as awareness of this problem surfaces, prescription opioids become harder to access, leading addicts to turn to heroin, which is often cheaper and more readily available.  But the origins of this crisis began long before the 1990’s. It existed relatively unaddressed within communities of color for at least 20 years prior with little response by way of government support or resources.”

While the screaming and shouting about the outrageous behavior of President Trump continues to be documented by media outlets everyday, a more honest assessment of this nation’s dysfunction would accurately acknowledge that Trump is not to blame for the vast majority of injustice the US has carried out since its inception.