Slavery on the Ballot—In 2022
On Tuesday, November 8th, voters around the United States made their voices heard on a variety of issues. Democrats survived what was predicted to be a Republican “bloodbath,” folks in states as red as Montana and Kentucky voted to uphold abortion rights, and in four states, involuntary servitude was explicitly banned. And yet, during a night that seemed surprisingly fortuitous for both progressivism and liberal democracy, an American state—Louisiana—voted to uphold slavery in their carceral system.
The Louisiana prison system has a dark and sordid past. The state is home to the oldest and largest carceral facility in the United States, the Louisiana State Penitentiary—better known by its unofficial name, Angola. The prison is nicknamed as such because it was a plantation until 1901, with most of its slaves originating from that East African nation. After the abolition of chattel slavery in 1865, the Angola plantation relied on “convict leasing” from the Louisiana State Penitentiary in order to maintain a steady supply of cheap, if not free, labor. When “convict leasing” became (technically) illegal in 1898, the state of Louisiana simply bought the Angola plantation to utilize its 8,000 acres and continue to control its slave/prisoner population. The prison still maintains that moniker and land today but has now expanded to 18,000 acres, almost all of its farmland tended to by incarcerated people for cents an hour.
Many Americans might be surprised to learn slavery in the United States is still a common practice, not just de facto but also de jure. The 13th Amendment, while instrumental in freeing millions of Black Americans from enslavement, lies at fault. In full, the amendment reads that “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.” As such, those within the carceral system can legally be subjected to indentured servitude—a practice that has not only existed, but exponentially grown—from the abolition of slavery well into our modern era.
Back in 1864, in a society where slavery was suddenly illegal unless the slaves were “prisoners,” there became an incentive for plantation-owners or slave-owners to incarcerate as many people as possible. Thus, Jim Crow laws (also known as Black Codes) were born. Jim Crow laws, named after a minstrel-show character designed to denigrate and humiliate Black people, inhibited almost every single freedom and right for the newly-emancipated. Not carrying proof of employment, entering certain neighborhoods, violating state-imposed curfews, or drinking out of specific water fountains all became grounds for arrests, convictions, and inordinate prison sentences for Black folks—especially because Black people were not allowed to vote or serve on juries. Once incarcerated, they could be leased to plantations and utilized for the same labor that their parents and grandparents had been forced into as slaves.
Very little about that process has changed in Louisiana. Prisoners at Angola are still forced to plant crops in the swampy fields, pick cotton under the blazing sun, and even cook and clean for prison staff—whom the incarcerated folks still call “free men.” They engage in this labor for cents an hour, and if they refuse, they are denied phone calls and visits from their family or are forced into solitary confinement, a punishment which has been condemned by the United Nations as a form of state-sanctioned torture.
This suffering and exploitation does not only occur at the Louisiana State Penitentiary. Over a dozen states still legally condone the enslavement and forced servitude of incarcerated people. Most other states don’t even mention it within their state constitutions, allowing it to quietly continue within their prison systems.
One of the most troubling and complex aspects of this loophole is how it entangles each and every member of the American public into complicity, no matter how removed one might feel from the carceral system and its effects. Not all legalized slavery is as recognizable and easily condemnable as it in Louisiana. Few people are aware that beloved companies like McDonalds, Starbucks, Verizon, and Victoria’s Secret—to name a few—consistently use incarcerated folks to cut costs, since, as aforementioned, the inmates are paid mere cents on the dollar.
And while Jim Crow is no longer the law of the land, Black people are still imprisoned at very disproportionate rates compared to their population. One in 81 Black Americans is currently serving time in a state or federal prison, and Black folks are imprisoned at nearly five times the rate of white Americans. Many experts posit that this can be attributed to a continuation of the manufactured criminalization that placed so many Black folks in prison after the Civil War. Instead of integrating diners or drinking from “White Only” water fountains, Black people are now imprisoned for marijuana possession or not being able to pay bail—imprisoned far more often than white people who do the same.
This is not only advantageous for the companies that contract labor with prison systems but increasingly for the prisons themselves. There are currently 158 for-profit prisons housing nearly 100,000 incarcerated Americans in the United States, all of which have a financial incentive to fill as many beds as possible by incarcerating as many humans as possible. Those incarcerated people not only bring the private prisons revenue just through their presence, but also through the aforementioned involuntary labor they provide; labor that is, again, not exclusive to private prisons but widely used in government-run facilities as well. In essence, the economic theory behind modern mass incarceration remains identical to that behind the exploitative, explicitly racist carceral practices of the 19th century.