Thursday, September 20, 2007

The Prison Industrial Complex

Alex Hillenbrand
History of Slavery and Racism
Under the Master’s Whip: African American Exploitation & Capitalist Injustice

The institutions of Slavery, The Jim Crow South, and the Northern Ghettos have all served to recruit, organize, and extract labor out of the African American population. Possibly the most unjust practice for executing this process is the creation of predominantly African American prisons for purposes of leasing inmate labor to private entrepreneurs. This practice occurs exclusively in two periods of American History: The post-Civil War era and the 1970’s right into the 21st Century. This essay will detail the factors causing the emergence of this practice in each era. For the postbellum era, it spawned from a need for cheap and abundant labor that had previously been provided by slaves. During the 1970’s, mass incarceration and convict leasing emerged to dispose of the African American ‘surplus labor pool’ caused by the globalization and the transformation of the Northern urban economy from manufacturing to business and knowledge based services.


The use of convicted criminals for commercial labor dates back as far as the 1600’s when Britain used captive labor to expand manpower in its colonies. Commercial shipping entrepreneurs first developed this system to reap profit by transporting convicted criminals to areas such as North America and Australia for indentured labor. While this provided a much-needed work force in such developing colonies, it also provided a means for exiling “the dangerous classes”, those creating socially undesirable behavior such as crime and listlessness.
Eventually this practice developed its own system of castes and racial prejudice. The caste system sought to distinguish white Christian servants from Negroes. This racial division set up the framework for acceptability of unjust treatment due to ethnicity. Following transportation’s abolition, the loss of this convict labor pool exacerbated a need for colonial slavery, since the economies in these colonies were dependent on rigorous manual labor for survival. Given the thriving nature of a white supremacy ideology during this time, coupled with the benefits of slavery over indentured servitude, racial slavery replaced indentured servitude as the primary means for the colonial labor force.
Slavery’s New Beginning
The legal use of slave labor as a source for American colonial power lasted approximately 250 years, beginning around 1619 and ending with slavery’s abolition in 1865. Slavery’s abolition posed a double threat to the Dixie class’ exploitation of an African labor force: it eliminated the cheap and abundant workforce required to run the plantation economy, and black access to civil and political rights promised to erode the color line initially drawn support slavery. Wacquant explains that the Dixie class’ response to this threat occurred in two phases. The first phase involved the promulgation of a convict lease system resolving the labor shortage issue by unjustly incarcerating emancipated slaves and forcing them into involuntary servitude as inmates . The second phase described by Wacquant emerged in the 1880’s when white lower classes pressed by competition with African Americans for jobs and housing joined with the plantation elite to ensure the “political disenfranchisement and systematic exclusion of former slaves from all institutions.” This second phase, commonly known as the Jim Crow Era, would hold African American’s in its grip well into the 1960’s.

First Phase: The History of for Profit Imprisonment in postbellum era

The emergence of a racialized convict lease system beginning in the Post-Civil War American South and lasting until the 1920’s became possible through its legitimization within the Thirteenth Amendment. This amendment outlaws slavery described here as “involuntary servitude”, except as a punishment for crime.
“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”.
The legitimization of forced servitude allowed the Southern ruling class to exploit the labor of newly emancipated slaves through their incarceration within a racist criminal justice system. Many plantation owners increasingly accused newly ‘emancipated’ slaves of petty crimes such as trespassing, disturbing of the peace, vagrancy, or loitering on their plantations. Once convicted of these petty crimes, the newly emancipated slaves, now inmates, were leased in large numbers to private vendors as a source of forced labor for white profit driven business. One result of this practice was a shift in prison populations to predominantly African American, while the previously white majority population declined. During this period, the percentage of black convicts in relation to white was often higher than 90%. Once an inmate was leased to a private vendor for a fee paid to the state, private vendors housed and fed the bought inmates with little to no government oversight. Often involuntary servitude under the convict lease system was more repressive than servitude as a slave.
The utilization of African American inmate labor became extremely profitable for private vendors. Early industries such as coal mining, logging, turpentine production, railroad construction and farm work all leased African American inmates for forced labor. One prison designer touted the convict lease system for its ability to keep the inmates near a dangerous state of exhaustion without enabling them to go anywhere else: “What other master is there that can reduce his workmen, if idle, to a situation next to starving, without suffering them to go elsewhere?” This new exploitation was a direct response to the economic crisis plaguing the South because of The Civil War. Southern treasuries had been exhausted to fund war efforts, much of the white work force was either killed or maimed in battle, and Southern plantation owners and industrialists had lost the cheap and abundant workforce of slave labor. The practice of filling this labor vacuum created by the Civil War with convicted African Americans was essentially a reinstitution of slavery, and the primary means for the Dixie elite to ensure their survival after the Civil War.
With the emergence of the Convict lease system, Black Belt counties soon became the major suppliers of the state penal apparatus, while prior to convict leasing these rural counties had sent very few people to prison. These states comprised large numbers of newly freed slaves who accustomed to plantation life, had continued to practice everyday rituals and habits after emancipation. Therefore, when a newly freed slave lingered on a plantation figuring out what to do, he was arrested for ‘vagrancy and loitering’, or when a freed slave accustomed to feeding themselves from the food they grew on the plantation continued this practice, they were arrested for ‘stealing’. Such arrests resulted in long prison terms and involuntary servitude for the newly emancipated, many of which were forced to labor on the very plantations where they were held as slaves prior to ‘freedom’. An African American who had known no life other than one under the whip of slavery was practically helpless under the jaws of the prison thirsty white Southern predator.
While economic motives played a role in the creation of the postbellum convict lease system, it is undeniable that racism is at the very backbone of this practice. Many Southern predators seeking bodies for incarceration and escalation in the punishment for petty crimes were heralded for controlling and punishing the first ‘black crime problem’. Creating a black crime problem provided the justification for mass arrest of African Americans, it was an opportunity for the racist mind to assume that this criminality was a result of inferiority, and therefore made it acceptable to subject a disproportionate number of Afro-American inmates to involuntary servitude. This justification will emerge again in the 1980’s and give birth to the only other rise of convict leasing in American History.

Second Phase: The Jim Crow Catalyst for Northern Migration

As stated earlier, African American competition for jobs and housing among lower class whites led many whites to join the plantation elite in the movement for political disenfranchisement and systematic exclusion of African Americans from all major institutions. This disenfranchisement and exclusion became the driving force for the migration of African Americans to Northern urban centers.
Economically, this disenfranchisement relegated the majority of African Americans to sharecropping and dept peonage. This highly unregulated system permitted white landowners to keep an African American sharecropper in a constant state of debt by manipulating their wages and credit. Landowners were known to exaggerate credit, refuse payment, and even evict black workers from farms after the crop had been harvested, leaving the sharecropper ‘wandering the roads starving and naked’. Outside of sharecropping, the white business class made it next to impossible for African Americans to get work that could provide any means to social mobility. Job opportunities for African Americans in mining and industrial towns were restricted to only the most dangerous and dirty ‘nigger work’. Any protest of this unjust treatment by Afro-Americans often resulted in lynchings and mob violence. In the last two decades of the nineteenth century, white Southerners lynched some 2,060 African American’s in an effort to maintain control of white hegemony. These cases fanned by the press, supported by churches, and encouraged by the passivity of law enforcement added to the social acceptability of such an inhumane practice.
The threat of lynching also served to enforce an exclusion of African Americans from major social institutions. Many African Americans, under the threat of violence, were relegated to separate residential districts and to the ‘colored sections’ of commercial establishments and public facilities. Exclusion also entailed banishment from voting. Poll taxes, grandfather clauses, literacy tests and residency requirements all excluded blacks from the vote. Any attempt by African Americans to mix within the white culture, especially in regards to sexual relationships, was regarded as ‘racial degeneracy’ and climaxed in mob violence, white riots, and beating for blacks who failed to ‘stay in their place’. Such violent repression of Afro-American advancement served the needs of the white ruling class: to exploit black labor while denying them equal rights.

The Northern Ghetto (1914-1968): setting the stage for the re-emergence convict leasing

Three major forces caused African Americans to flee the South for Northern urban centers following the outbreak of World War I: an economic crisis of agriculture, high demand for labor in the North, and the horrors and indignities of the Jim Crow South. During this period, the Southern agrarian economy experienced significant mechanization. This allowed landowners to harvest crops using far less workers than before, reducing the demand for jobs that had traditionally supplied African American’s with a source of income. This loss of jobs was exacerbated by the arrival of a boll weevil infestation in the 1920’s. Thought to be Native to Central America, this insect averaging a length of six millimeters feeds on cotton buds and flowers. By the 1920’s it had infested all cotton growing areas in the South, decimating the Southern cotton crops and causing land values to plummet.
While the Southern economy fought to stay afloat, the Northern economy was booming with a high demand for unskilled and semiskilled labor in developing industry such as steel mills, packing houses, factories and railroads. As WWI cut off European immigration, employers sent their recruiters through the South to hire job hungry African Americans. For many Southern African Americans, the North was an outlet from the violence, degradation and limited opportunity of the South. This out migration occurred most heavily in areas where lynchings were most frequent, which serves to reaffirm this notion of escape. During this Great Migration, the status of Afro-Americans effectively transformed from a landless peasantry to an industrial proletariat.
While Northern life offered a higher standard of living and relief from caste domination, there existed a de-facto racism allowing the white ruling class to perform the two basic functions of Slavery and the Jim Crow Regime: harnessing the labor of African Americans while segregating their ‘tainted bodies’ in order to prevent the ‘odium of miscegenation.’ The primary tool for maintaining this exploitation and separation became the ghetto. As the numbers of African Americans increased in the North, the desire for separation by the majority of whites intensified until it hardened segregation within ghettos, schools, public education, and the workforce. Major players in this segregation game included banks, insurance companies, and property brokers who effectively divided the city along racial lines. White employers and unions maintained job ceilings on Afro-Americans, relegating them to the lower occupational strata of semi-skilled and manual labor that was especially vulnerable to economic downturn. These unwanted visitors were grossly perceived as “physically and mentally unfit, unsanitary, entirely irresponsible and therefore undesirable neighbors”. Such animosity prevented social mobility outside the sphere of the ghetto, and any attempt to settle outside the ‘black perimeter’ often resulted in assaults on Afro-Americans by ‘athletic clubs’ and house bombings by ‘neighborhood improvement societies’. With the hostile world of racism threatening every aspect of life, African Americans had no choice but to take refuge within their own communities.

The hyperghetto: raw material for convict leasing’s second rise

The Northern ghetto’s major transformation from its early twentieth century origins to what it has become today is largely due to globalization and the development of a public consciousness that has racialized crime to the point where prisons are disproportionately filled with people of color. Some of today’s numbers will help to explain the disproportional nature of this recent change. The number of people in prison, in jail, on parole, and on probation in the U.S. increased by 300% from 1980 [since the election of Ronald Reagan] through 2000, to more than 6 million. This buildup has targeted the poor, and especially Blacks. In 2005, for every 100,000 black residents, 3,301 were sentenced prisoners under State or Federal supervision. For every 100,000 white residents, there were 536 sentenced prisoners under State of Federal Supervision. During the mid-90’s, blacks represented half of all prison admissions, compared to their 13% share in the population. This disproportional shift of prison populations to predominantly people of color has not existed since the end of the convict lease system in the 1920’s. In 1926, African Americans represented only 21% of those admitted to prison. It is important to note that the latter 20th Century spike in African American incarceration occurred simultaneously with the re-emergence of the convict lease system (It grew exponentially during this time, but didn’t it exist in insignificant forms earlier?).
This prison binge has its beginnings during the 1970’s transformation of the metropolitan economy from predominantly manufacturing to business and knowledge based services. These manufacturing jobs have traditionally employed the majority of African Americans since their migration from the South in the latter 19th century. During the 1970’s, these factories relocated from the central city to industrial parks in the suburbs, anti-union states in the South and foreign countries. This manufacturing relocation away from the urban core left entire African American communities in shambles, shattering their economies, and decimating school and social welfare systems. In Chicago’s South side, a traditionally African American ghetto, between 1954 and 1982 the number of manufacturing establishments plummeted from 10,288 to 5,203, and the number of production workers fell from half a million to 172,000. Unemployment in this period hovered at 50%. This crisis was exacerbated by the extreme difficulty in the ability of Afro-Americans to move outside the ghetto or build up small businesses. In regards to small business, African Americans were twice as likely be denied small business loans. In the housing market, African Americans were subject to mortgage loan discrimination, as well as racial bias on behalf of realtors and sellers that prevented Afro-Americans from settling in white areas. With no means of moving outside the ghetto or re-building a shattered economy, many ghetto dwellers were trapped in an inescapable poverty. For the first time in American History, the African American was no longer needed in the urban economic system.

The Dissolution of Order: Public Perception and Response to “The Black Crime Problem”

If can’t work to make it / I’ll robe and take it / Either that or / Me and my children /Are starving and naked / Rather be a criminal pro / Than to follow the matrix / Hey it’s me a monster / Y’all done created
- Tyriq Trotter, a.k.a Black Thought, rapper for The Roots. Song: False Media

As many ghetto dwelling African Americans fall deeper into poverty with no means of social mobility, we begin to see the dissolution of organizations and commercial establishments that had previously constituted the framework for formal survival strategies. The ghetto’s physical infrastructure had eroded, business and housing tracts were boarded up, churches lost their capacity to organize, and the black press had virtually disappeared in the ghetto. During WWII, Chicago’s South side had five news weeklies that were widely dispersed, read, and discussed. Following the economic collapse of the ghetto, the Chicago Defender was the only weekly left and was sparsely dispersed, where previously it had a readership base of approximately 100,000.
The de-formalization of survival strategies, loss of economic function, and resilient segregation riddled the ghetto with economic, social and physical insecurity. The school systems had fallen into dissolution, with dilapidated facilities filled by underpaid, under trained teachers who had often had to work without such essentials as copy machines, libraries, and updated textbooks. 75% of the students in Chicago’s school establishments came from families below the poverty line, and ½ of the city’s schools placed in the bottom 1 percentile nationwide on the American College Test . It is apparent that these schools served little purpose other than to bide time for the majority of students before they flooded the streets, entering into the drug trade, gangs, and other illicit means of making a living. This situation eventually bred pandemic levels of crime, permeating relationships with a sense of suspicion and distrust, and violence became the means for upholding respect and regulating encounters. In 1990, the core of Chicago’s South Side had homicide rates topping 100 for 100,000 persons.
The public’s response to this pandemic was one of fear and retribution rather than one of rehabilitation and compassion. It is during this time that we see the emergence of a ‘negro crime problem’ that was characteristic of the postbellum mentality justifying the convict lease system. While this ‘negro problem’ is the product of racialized perception of crime perpetuated by numerous factors of American society, the media is responsible for the majority of this perception. The emergence of crime, especially violent crime, within the economically shattered ghetto became a lucrative source of gripping, easy to report, ever present material for the media. Undue attention was given to such stories, and their coverage almost always distorted the level of violence while displaying persons of color as criminal offenders to a greater degree than is actually true. Aided by large-scale attention given to such stories as George Bush Sr.’s racist Willie Horton Campaign and the strictly militant portrayal of The Black Panther Party, this “black crime problem” became widespread. (More detail). By 1969 this “black crime” perception had become so widespread that a public opinion poll (Ass name of poll for more legitimacy) reported 81% of the public believed that law and order had broken down, and a majority blaming “Negroes who start riots” and “communists”.
The response to this distorted perception was a tough on crime and drugs policy that flooded prisons with African Americans. This disproportionate number of African Americans within the criminal justice system is further attributed to its racial bias in the policing, prosecution, sentencing and policymaking facets. To detail every aspect of this bias would require another paper in itself, so this paper will focus on just several examples. In Volusia County in Central Florida, researchers documented traffic stops made by police during the 1980’s. Over 70% percent of the drivers stopped were African American or Hispanic, even though Afro-Americans constituted 12% of the driving population and 15% of all drivers convicted of traffic violations. 80% of the cars searched after being stopped were driven by either African American of Hispanic. (Add from Mauer how those stopped were not violating the law any more than anyone else. i.e it wasn’t because more blacks and Hispanics have taillights out or bad registration.) Law enforcement strategies that disproportionately affect minorities will create disproportions in the prison population. Another example of racial bias in Criminal Justice Policy exists in crack vs. cocaine charges. A sentence for possession of five grams of crack is five years in prison while it takes five-hundred grams of cocaine for that same sentence. Crack is a drug used most by the poor, and most poor are Hispanic and African American. The racial disparities in the sentencing of crack have been enormous, with Afro-Americans constituting 85% of defendants each year. (Research how the CIA supplied Ricky Ross with millions of dollars of Nicaraguan cocaine per day in order to fund the Contra rebel group in Nicaragua against the Communist Sandinistas.) Such law enforcement practices that predominantly target minorities undeniably suggest that racial bias is at play in the creation and implementation of American criminal justice policy.
Contrary to the Department of Justice’s belief that tough sentencing reduces crime by taking violent offenders off the streets, and that ‘just punishment” deters criminals from committing future crime, evidence shows that incarceration accounts for less than 25% of reduction in crime; and with recidivism rates at hovering at 60% it is clear that incarceration is not an effective deterrent of crime. Rather than seeking a retributive approach to crime and disorder in the urban ghettos, it would be far more humane and profitable to take a rehabilitative approach, especially in regards to drug policy. In 1997, a RAND analysis on drug use concluded that the expenditure of one million dollars to expand mandatory minimum sentencing would result in a national decrease in drug consumption of 13 kilograms, while spending those funds for drug treatment would reduce consumption by 100 kilograms. There are clearly better methods for handling issues of drug control and crime. Current methods merely treat the problem rather than prevent it. Why? because it is more profitable to treat the problem than it is to prevent it. (Possibly add Emile Durham’s theory that punishment is not to rehabilitate prisoners, but rather a ritual to re-affirm the rules and norms that a society has developed.)
Re-emergence of convict leasing: It’s more profitable to treat than prevent

The flood of minorities into prisons has created a fiscal crisis ushering in an industry of private prisons and the re-emergence of the practice of leasing convict labor to private entrepreneurs. These private prisons relieve federal and state governments the financial burden of building prisons to house the prisoner boom while reaping the profits generated by inmate labor and state and county government payment for the service of housing these inmates. (If it is so profitable to build prisons for private entrepreneurs, why don’t state and federal gov do so? Are only private prisons practicing convict labor, do state and federal gov. do it too?) Under permission of the 13th Amendment, lease of the involuntary servitude of inmates to companies such as IBM, Compaq, Motorola, Texas Instruments, Honeywell, Microsoft, and Boeing has become widespread among inmate populations . Inmates (who are predominantly Afro-American) work largely for manufacturing companies such as textile producers, many of which had originally fled the urban core beginning in the 1970’s. This draws a striking parallel to the emancipated slaves who found themselves forced into involuntary servitude back on the plantation as inmates. Steven Donziger has argued that in the criminal justice system, prisoners are the raw material needed to guarantee the system’s long-term growth. In order to ensure this supply, he argues that criminal justice policies incarcerate individuals “regardless of whether crime is rising or the incarceration is necessary.”

This supply of raw materials is steadily increasing. State and federal prisoners held in private prisons alone increased 8.8% from 2004-2005, coming to a total of 107,447 inmates. (FIND: these numbers may be MUCH higher, the Bureau of Justice has a clever way of disguising their statistics) This significantly rising source of cheap and abundant labor relies on racialized assumptions of criminality in order to keep the prisons well stocked. Yet again, we find African Americans confined within a system that exploits their labor, denies equality (EXPAND: felony disenfranchisement), and maintains segregation from the general populace. Cash rules almost every aspect of American life, and since it is more profitable to treat than prevent this problem, such perceptions and practices will not cease without some form of intervention.
The deepening influence of racism is largely responsible for the failure of popular conversation concerning the illusion that mass incarceration is the most effective way at dealing with criminality. America needs to move to a concern for the rehabilitation of its disenfranchised citizens and away from the belief that social control is the best means for dealing with complex issues of economic ineptitude, poor education, poverty, violence, and drugs. We need to understand the historical roots that have driven minorities to their current conditions, and understand that the wounds of slavery and racism have not completely healed but still are bleeding under the whip of segregation and economic exploitation.

Works Cited
Blanchflower, David, Phillip Levine, and David Zimmerman. "Discrimination in the
Small-Business Credit Market." Review of Economics and Statistics (2003). Apr. 2007.
Davis, Angela, and Avery Gordon. "Globalism and the Prison Industrial Complex: an
Interview with Angela Davis." America: History and Life (1998). Wilson Omnifile. Apr. 2007.
Hallett, Michael. "Commerce with Criminals: the New Colonialism in Criminal Justice."
America: History and Life (2004). Mar. 2007.
"History of the Boll Weevil in the United States." Mississippi Bollweevil Management Corporation Webpage. Mississippi State University. Apr. 2007
Ladd, Helen. "Evidence on Discriminatino in Mortgage Lending." Journal of Economic
Perspectives (2007). Apr. 2007.
Mann, Eric. "History Can Guide Us: Toward a Third Reconstruction." MR Webzine. 23
Mar. 2007. Monthly Review Foundation. Apr. 2007 .
Mauer, Marc, Malcom Young, and Ryan S. King. "Incarceration and Crime: a Complex
Relationship." The Sentencing Project (2005). Apr. 2007.
Mauer, Marc. "Race, Class and the Development of Criminal Justice Policy." The Policy
Studies Association (2004). Apr. 2007.
Mauer, Marc. Race to Incarcerate. New York: The New P, 1999. 118-141.
Ondrich, Jan, Alex Stricker, and John Yinger. "Do Real Estate Brokers Choose to
Discriminate? Evidence From the 1989 Housing Discrimination Study." Southern Economic Journal (1998). Apr. 2007.
"Prisoners in 2005." Bureau of Justice Statistics. 18 Jan. 2007. U.S Department of
Justice. Mar. 2007 .
"Recent Trend in U.S Recidivism." Bureau of Justice Statistics. Department of Justice.
Apr. 2007 .
Wacquant, Loic. "Deadly Symbioses: When Ghetto and Prison Mesh and Meet."
Punishment and Society (2001). Sage Publications. Mar. 2007.

If anyone is interested in developing this further I am interested in working with you, particularly the actual numbers of prisoners producing goods and services in prison, statistics on what convicts are paid, how much profit the private prisons are making, and if this practice is at both the federal and state level. If it is so profitable to make private prisons, then why doesn't the government do it to pay for some of its costs? I want to see this


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