“It is time for the U.S. to recognize not only our ugly past, but our ugly present…”
By Grace Masback, DC RAPP Intern
December 6, 1865 is a classic date in American history. After four years of a destructive civil war and more than two centuries of slavery, the country took steps to move toward a more free and equal future by ratifying the 13th Amendment to the Constitution. The 13th Amendment, which outlawed slavery, reads, “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.”
At the time, it represented an important milestone as the first official recognition and denouncement of the evils, violence, and oppression that slavery and the individuals who worked so tirelessly to promote it, had brought upon African-Americans. It promised new freedom and opportunities, offering hope to recently emancipated slaves.
Yet, although it changed things on paper, it did little to change the social and cultural realities of life for African-Americans within the United States. It is a tragic reality that much of the freedom, economic success, and creative potential of the United States had been built upon oppression and slavery. The Southern economy, in particular, was incredibly dependent on slave labor. As a result, with overt slavery illegal, whites turned to other forms of control and oppression, such as sharecropping, Jim Crow, segregation, the prison system, and later, mass incarceration. Although initially promising, the 13th Amendment proved complicit in this continued repression.
While the 13th Amendment, effectively abolished slavery and involuntary servitude the United States, it included an important caveat — a person can be legally enslaved if they commit a 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.”
Beginning in the 1970s, the war on drugs and harsh sentencing guidelines drastically increased the number of individuals in prison, particularly young African-Americans. This mass incarceration of American blacks became a form of modern day slavery, as the United States, home to 5% of the world’s population, incarcerated 25% of the world’s incarcerated individuals. African Americans were disproportionately more likely to be incarcerated, with one-in-four African- American men ending up in prison. People of color account for 30% of the population of the United States but make up 60% of those incarcerated.
The Federal Bureau of Prisons requires that all physically able people in prison have a job, whether it is working in the kitchen, on the custodial crew, or working with a corporation that subcontracts through the prison. While the concept of individuals working while incarcerated is not inherently flawed, prison workers are often treated aggressively and unfairly. However, because men and women in prison are not considered “employees,” they are not protected by laws such as the “Fair Labor Standards Act,” which enforces safe labor practices and payment of a minimum wage. If they are paid at all, the average incarcerated individual is paid between 12 and 14 cents per hour. Using prison labor allows companies to compete with competitors using cheap labor overseas while simultaneously claiming that their products are “made in the USA.”
Men and women in prison who refuse to work face solitary confinement and the revocation of privileges, such as outdoor time, meals, and healthcare. In many cases, prisons are dependent on the labor of incarcerated individuals, a dependency eerily reminiscent of the dependence that farmers in the south had on slaves.
The amount of commercial goods produced and created by incarcerated individuals is staggering. Each month, incarcerated individuals in California process 680,000 pounds of beef, 400,000 pounds of chicken, 450,000 gallons of milk, and 2.9 million eggs. Incarcerated men and women in Washington were employed by a Starbucks subcontractor to package holiday coffee. Other people in prison have reported doing jobs that include everything from shrink-wrapping computer mice, to making furniture, locks, binders, and juice boxes for school. In the 1990s, subcontractor Third Generation hired 35 South Carolinian incarcerated women to sew lingerie and leisure wear for Victoria’s Secret and JCPenney. In 2015, prison labor generated more than $472 million in net sales, yet only 5% of that amount went to incarcerated individuals.
Much of the information above is reflected in the recently released documentary 13TH, by Ava DuVernay, the acclaimed director of the movie Selma. The documentary paints a brutally honest picture of the repression of African-Americans from slavery to present. It focuses on all of the ways in which the promises of the 13th Amendment have failed, honing in on Jim Crow segregation, the war on drugs, mass incarceration of African- Americans, and the way in which the 13th Amendment continues to allow for the enslavement of African-Americans. DuVernay argues that a single line in the Constitution has sanctioned systemic racism and caused hundreds of years of oppression. DuVernay stresses that mass incarceration and oppression are not partisan issues. Through time, both political parties have played a role in the commodification and exploitation of incarcerated individuals.
DuVernay’s film has started a conversation across society. It forces people to think about their past, think about the history of the United States, and challenge our conceptions about the supposed freedoms guaranteed by our long-celebrated Constitution. It reminds us of the existence of all the incarcerated individuals still waiting for the liberty promised to them so many years ago.
The 13th amendment, and the history of institutionalized racism in the United States targeting African Americans, explains the tremendous population of aging and elderly individuals currently still confined in prisons within the United States. These individuals were swept up in a violent and oppressive system and have since been lost and ignored, drowned out by the noise of a society out of touch with its embarrassing past.
Ultimately, author, lawyer, and activist Bryan Stevenson perfectly summarizes the current situation within the United States stating, “People say all the time, ‘I don’t understand how people could have tolerated slavery.’ ‘How could people have gone to a lynching and participated in that?’ ‘How did people make sense of segregation?’…’That’s so crazy! If I were living at that time I would never have tolerated anything like that.’ And the truth is, we are living at this time and we are tolerating it.”
It is time to declare that the 13th Amendment should be amended to excise the clause that permits the involuntary servitude and slavery of men and women in prison. It is time for the United States to recognize not only our ugly past, but our ugly present, and to introduce much needed cultural and legal changes that will make a meaningful difference for the future.
Grace Masback is a passionate, politics loving, 18-year-old who aims to give voice to the voiceless via journalism, community outreach, and advocacy.