Why Are Incarcerated People Working In Governors' Mansions?

missouri governor mansion
Zain Murdock
January 25, 2024

In her memoir, "Becoming Abolitionists," Derecka Purnell recalled attending a summer leadership program, including a lunch at Missouri's governor's mansion. And when dozens of butlers walked in, she had a different view than the white women in the room. 

While they "clapped and remarked on how well-mannered the men were," Purnell wrote, "I could not help but to think how enslaved these men were." 

They were prisoners.

Since 1871, Missouri prisons have sent incarcerated people to work for governors' families. The work release program "rewards" the well-behaved nearing the end of their sentences - not with freedom, but with dusting, laundry, cooking, and taking guests' coats.

Sure, the time beyond bars offers a change of scenery. But it's entangled with the legacy of slavery.

The practice, occurring in several other states, began on the heels of emancipation. The workers are barely paid, if at all. And it is, as Purnell indicated, a spectacle. 

Both systems of enslavement and incarceration have employed public executions, pageantry, humiliation, memorabilia, and entertainment to punish and dehumanize Black Americans - and make white Americans rich.

Seeing incarcerated laborers for who they are in a room of patronizing whiteness is the beginning. Following the lead of incarcerated people in the fight for abolition is our future.

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