A Loophole In The Constitution Permits Slavery

The entrance to the Louisiana State Penitentiary/msppmoore/Wikimedia/CC BY-SA 2.0

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Angola Prison used to be a plantation. It’s been reformed into a prison, yet, inmates at the prison work in those same fields for as little as two cents a day. The sight of inmates working in the fields is an eerily similar reminder of the enslaved people who were forced to work nonstop on that same land.

Prisons in the U.S. have a long history. Dating back to the late 1800s, just after the Emancipation Proclamation, a new system of federal correction facilities began. There’s no other prison system where this is more apparent than the Louisiana prison system.

The Louisiana prison system has the highest number of people incarcerated per capita. Angola Prison, located in Louisiana, is the largest maximum-security prison in the country. It was named after the country where enslaved people came from in that region.

In a 2017 interview, Sheriff Steve Prator of Caddo Parish, LA claimed it was necessary to keep inmates, even good ones, in prison to keep the facility running through free labor.

The U.S. incarcerates the highest number people in the world with 2.2 million people imprisoned. In 2010, it was estimated that 40 percent of people incarcerated were Black. There are many reasons for this, but a history of incarceration points to the continued institution of slavery in the U.S. prison system.

After Emancipation, freedmen were required to work, as stated by the Black Codes. Black codes were put in place to restrict Black folks’ freedom. The codes pressured Blacks to work for low wages or to repay debts. Lack of education and segregated public facilities forced freedmen to work menial jobs for little pay.

The passage of the thirteenth, fourteenth, and fifteenth amendments eliminated Black Codes. Black people experienced some social and economic equality with the ability to vote and securing better jobs. However, a loophole in the 13th amendment, still permitted a form of slavery.

Laws that disproportionately affected Black folks put Black people in jails and prisons. Thus, convict leasing, leasing out prisoners to private bidders, began. David Oshinsky, author of Worse Than Slavery, said that the prison population began to swell and inmates got younger and Blacker.

Convict leasing ended in 1928, but inmates still worked for little pay. Inmates tried suing under the Fair Labor Standard Act, but they were unsuccessful. To sue, the relationship between the inmate and their employer has to be considered economic, but they were not. The relationship is considered “social or penological.”

Several arguments for and against prison labor have gone around. Some say it’s good for rehabilitation, some claim it is “just due punishment” or that “prisoners should contribute to society if everyone else has to.”

The excuses in favor of prison labor are mind-boggling and they go to show how the government still does not care about Black bodies. The system in place that funnels Black people into prison is a painful reminder that slavery is still ever present, even if only as nebulous dark cloud.

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