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Land of The Free? Or The Home of Modern Slavery?

artwork by Adam Zyglis.

artwork by Adam Zyglis.

artwork by Adam Zyglis.

E. Parker, Opinions Editor

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In the words of social activist Angela Davis, “Prisons do not disappear social problems, they disappear human beings. Homelessness, unemployment, drug addiction, mental illness, and illiteracy are only a few of the problems that disappear from public view when the human beings contending with them are relegated to cages.”

America is home to approximately 2.2 million slaves in our prison system. For those unaware, this may come as a shock. However, this is completely constitutional under the 13th amendment which granted former enslaved Black Americans liberation. The 13th amendment states: 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.”  In simpler terms, under the 13th amendment a person is constitutionally deemed a slave to the state if they are convicted of a crime. That leads to the explanation of prison labor and other programs which allow inmates to work while also serving time. Take a look at your license plate for validation.

This indirect gateway back into slavery was taken wide advantage of during the Reconstruction Era. Former enslaved Black Americans were put into prisons and convicted for minor crimes and allegations without proper trials after Union troops left the South and stopped enforcing the rights of freedmen protected by the 13th amendment. Decades later, this along with Jim Crow laws, Black Codes, and other forms of segregation and discrimination added onto the prison population in America. For instance, former slaves were required to have jobs, however the opportunities to work were limited. A Black American who was unemployed and wandering around could be arrested and used for labor as payback for their offense.

In more modern historic periods, the 1980’s “War on Drugs” under Ronald Reagan, which targeted minorities in large urban communities such as Los Angeles and New York, along with the three strikes rule under Bill Clinton in 1994, massively added to the overpopulation of prisons. This rapid spike in incarceration is known as the Prison Industrial Complex (PIC) and it has been an issue for many generations. The PIC , as insane as it sounds, is not a conspiracy theory and it hinders many disenfranchised American citizens.

The United States, holds onto 5% of the global population, however we have 25% of the world’s incarcerated. The Netflix documentary “13th” directed by Ava Duvernay reported that roughly 2/3rds of the nation’s prison population are awaiting trial for nonviolent offenses. Meanwhile, 60% of inmates suffer from mental illnesses that are being intensified by our prison systems’ focus on punishment instead of rehabilitation. PIC is responsible for the vast majority of this. They fund prisons by private corporations and businesses for prison labor. Currently, big businesses are able to make billions of dollars in profits from the work produced by inmates, who are often paid 17 cents an hour. In many cases, they must work at least six to eight hours and are often forced to work overtime. Money is also obtained by the importing and exporting of inmates to different facilities in between states and counties.

Another symptom that contributes to the issue of our mass incarceration rate and that feeds into the PIC is the school-to-prison pipeline. According to the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, students of color are 3.5 times more likely to be punished by means of suspension or expulsion, especially under a zero-tolerance school policy. The school-to-prison pipeline refers to the intensified police presence in public schools. In some cases, excessive punishment is brought to certain students which forces them out of the classroom, leaving them open to enter the justice system with future convictions. Many of these students are funneled out of school and into juvenile detention facilities. These adolescents are usually battling learning disabilities as well as a history of poverty, abuse, or neglect. Shoving them out of school and away from counseling eventually sets them up for failure to the criminal justice system where they grow up as damaged individuals who are lost to prison and unable to cope with society when they are released.

This is problematic for people of color and those who have past convictions, as they are the most likely to be incarcerated. The issue with the PIC is that it requires many prisons to be completely filled with inmates despite how minor their offenses are while also forcing people to serve time without being fully convicted.

In 2010 Kalief Browder, a 16-year-old Black student at Bronx community college, was wrongfully accused of stealing a backpack filled with expensive items. He was tried as an adult and served three years at Rikers Island prison without a conviction. He was finally released after it was revealed that the prosecution didn’t have a body of evidence to link Browder to the crime nor any witnesses, besides the alleged claim that he resembled the suspect. In 2015, two years after his release from Rikers, Kalief Browder took his own life at the age of 22. The traumatic experiences and extended time in solitary confinement is linked to be the cause of Kalief’s mental illness after his release. The story of Kalief Browder is one tragic account of countless other Americans who are now slaves to our prison system. Which is being taken advantage of for profit by corporations and businesses with biases and prejudices towards both race and class.

Things will only continue to get worse as our prison population expands. We have slightly decreased the amount of crime in the US, however we have vastly increased incarceration and created gateways for people to stay in a cycle of imprisonment as repeated offenders for a majority of their lives. Many of whom have been entangled in the criminal justice system since adolescence, with no hope in sight because being locked up is all they know. Is this truly the “land of the free” or the home of the enslaved?

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Land of The Free? Or The Home of Modern Slavery?