13th Amendment: Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for a crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.
On December 9th, courageous inmates at 10 Georgia state prisons staged a peaceful protest in which they locked themselves down voluntarily and refused to work. Their demands are simple:
· A living wage for work
· Educational Opportunities
· Decent Healthcare
· An end to cruel and unusual punishments
· Decent Living Conditions
· Nutritional meals
· Vocational and self-improvement opportunties
· Access to families
· Just parole decisions
Since initiating their protest, prisoners have been subjected to violence, been deprived of food, heat and hot water.
We stand in solidarity with these prisoners, because we understand the prison industrial complex to be a modern day iteration of slavery. Why?
If you revisit the text of the 13th amendment, the famed Civil War amendment that supposedly granted us our freedom, you will find that slavery was not abolished. The amendment clearly states that slavery and involuntary servitude can be used as forms of punishment for convicted criminals.
However, we cannot understand the connection between criminality and slavery outside of the context of race. After the 13th amendment was passed and slaves were freed, many of those same formerly enslaved folks were rendered vagabonds, wanderers without a home. Although many of them chose to wander in order to find their families or simply to be free of their masters, they also became easy targets for town vagrancy laws. Many former slaves were locked up for exercising the freedom of movement just conferred upon them. To add insult to injury, towns then engaged in the dubious practice of convict leasing in order to earn revenue. Under the convict leasing system, a plantation owner would go to a prison, pay the prison official to “lease” the services of a convict and then use that prisoner to do work, often on the very same plantations from which they had just been freed.
The prison system in our country has therefore had a long-standing financial incentive to increase incarceration. In the 19th century, prisons could raise revenues and simultaneously punish folks who had the audacity to exercise constitutional freedoms and view themselves as full human beings.
Our modern-day prison system works very similarly. Over 50% of inmates are African American males. This is not coincidental but comes from a long history of using black male bodies to perform menial labor for minimal (or no) pay. Yes, there are many criminals who have done dangerous things, but the reality is that prison is often the end result of poor education and lack of access to unskilled job opportunities. Couple that with over-policing and a racially biased justice system and you have a recipe for disaster.
In today’s prisons, prisoners do all kinds of labor from making license plates, to telemarketing, to building the desks used in our college classrooms. The irony. In many cases they are paid a mere $.12 on the hour, and in Georgia prisoners are paid nothing. In some states where they are paid more ($.25/hr), they are taxed at 50%, because they are forced to use their own wages to contribute to their cost-of-living. Add to that the inflated costs of commissary items and the fact that basics like soap and toilet paper are often not provided, and the internal space of the prison functions very much according to the logic of 19th century systems of debt peonage, whereby families worked on plantations, made wages, but were subjected to exorbitant costs for basic necessities, leaving them always in debt to their plantation masters.
There is much more to say about the prison industrial complex and the way Black and Brown bodies are positioned within it. I’ll leave that work to CF Chanel, our resident scholar in Critical Prison Studies, who will have more to say after her finals are over.
We simply want our readers to know that we understand the prison industrial complex as a social problem that occurs at the intersections of race, gender, and class, sexuality and ability. It is therefore a feminist issue.
We are heartened by the multi-racial coalitions of prisoners who have come together to do this important work; the strategic use of nonviolence in this instance exposes the utter fallacy of the social construction of prisoners as inherently violent and unreasonable human beings. In the most radical tradition of Dr. King, they demonstrate the guiding logics of the tactical aspects of nonviolence as a political strategy, namely that when you choose non-violence against folks who routinely use violence to subjugate you, you dramatize the disparity in the narratives being told, and demonstrate from which direction the violence actually flows. It’s utterly brilliant.
Ashe. Let’s move mountains.
Below is a list of prisons where prisoners are still on lockdown and where you can call to express concern.
Hays State Prison—706-857-0400
Macon State Prison—978-472-3900
Telfair State Prison—229-868-7721
Smith State Prison – 912-654-5000
The Georgia Department of Corrections is at http://www.dcor.state.ga.us and their phone number is 478-992-5246