Monday, September 22, 2008

Slavery After Emancipation: The Beginning Of The Prison Industrial Complex- Part 1

"With the southern economy in ruins, state officials limited to the barest resources, and county governments with even fewer, the concept of reintroducing the forced labor of Blacks as a means of funding government services was viewed by Whites as an inherently practical method of eliminating the cost of building prisons and returning Blacks to their appropriate position in society. Forcing convicts to work as part of punishment for an ostensible crime was clearly legal too; the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution, adopted in 1865 to formally abolish slavery, specifically permitted involuntary servitude as a punishment for 'duly convicted' criminals.

Beginning in the late 1860s, and accelerating after the return of White political control in 1877, every southern state enacted an array of interlocking laws essentially intended to criminalize Black life. Many such laws were struck down in court appeals or through federal interventions, but new statutes embracing the same strictures on Black life quickly appeared to replace them. Few laws specifically enunciated their applicability only to Blacks, but it was widely understood that these provisions would rarely if ever be enforced on Whites. Every southern state except Arkansas and Tennessee had passed laws by the end of 1865 outlawing vagrancy and so vaguely defining it that virtually any freed slave not under the protection of a White man could be arrested for the crime. An 1865 Mississippi statute required African American workers to enter into labor contracts with White farmers by January 1 of every year or risk arrest. Four other states legislated that African Americans could not legally be hired for work without a discharge paper from their previous employer- effectively preventing them from leaving the plantation of the White man they worked for. In the 1880s, Alabama, North Carolina, and Florida enacted laws making it a criminal act for a Black man to change employers without permission.

In nearly all cases, the potential penalty awaiting Black men, and a small number of women, snared by those laws was the prospect of being sold into forced labor. Many states in the South and the North attempted to place their prisoners in private hands during the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. The state of Alabama was long predisposed to the idea, rather than taking on the cost of housing and feeding prisoners itself. It experimented with turning over convicts to private 'wardens' during the 1840s and 1850s but was ultimately unsatisfied with the results. The state saved some expense but gathered no revenue. Moreover, the physical abuse that came to be almost synonymous with privatized incarceration always was eventually unacceptable in an era when virtually every convict was White. The punishment of slaves for misdeeds rested with their owners." -From, "Slavery By Another Name" By: Douglas A. Blackmon

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