Faking Change…

April 23, 2015

By: Suzette L. Steptoe

In 1619, the Dutch introduced the first Africans to America, planting the seeds of a slavery system that evolved into a nightmare of abuse and cruelty that would ultimately divide the nation. In simple economic terms, American colonists benefitted from slave labor as they were able to sell their goods on the open and global markets at rates far cheaper than their competitors. America’s westward expansion and the North’s growing abolition movement provoked a great debate over slavery that extended into the American Civil War. The war ended in 1865, and roughly four million slaves were set free. The end of slavery was a prominent achievement in human rights. But while many historians are quick to discuss the social, economic, political and judicial effects, they tend to overlook how America was founded, and still heavily relies upon, forced servitude.

Legally abolishing slavery prompted some of the former slaves to leave the southern states because the southern way of life undermined their new rights. Conversely, many stayed and to remain shows one of the impacts of slavery. For so long, Black people were born into and bred for slavery. After hundreds of years of being forced into a way of life, when that force was lifted, it may have been difficult for the freed people to “force” themselves to do or be something other than submissive. But some were stronger than others which resulted in conflicts arising between some of the newly freed slaves and the landowners. These freed men rightfully “expected the federal government to give them a certain amount of land as compensation for all the work they had done during the slavery era,” but the landowner’s only concern was to continue controlling the various markets and maintain their production rates. Out of this conflict arose a system of cheap labor known as sharecropping.

Sharecropping allowed families to rent small sections of land in return for a portion of the crops at the end of the year. The landowners charged these families exuberant fees for renting and using the land which included the cost of seed, equipment, and food. After the landowner deductions, even with a good harvest, sharecroppers could only afford to continue working the land and, in essence, remained enslaved. When landowner’s had growing concerns for what would happen should the freed men decide they no longer wanted to work land they did not own, the solution came in the form of new laws.

Laws known as “Black Codes” were passed to authorize the arrest and imprisonment of former slaves for “crimes” such as being unemployed. These codes taught the Southern states to use “the criminal justice system as a tool of racial control [by convicting and sentencing Blacks] under. . . unjust laws that criminalized them for [merely] existing as free Black citizens.” These codes marked the beginning of Black people having the most contact with the criminal justice system. And as most prisons were destroyed during the war, a huge problem arose regarding where and how to house these prisoners. With so many Blacks being imprisoned, the states realized they could eliminate some costs and, at the same time, increase revenues by leasing these Black prisoners to landowners. This system of convict leasing became another means of nearly free Black labor the landowners had at their disposal. By simply changing the title of slave to prisoner, landowner’s once again had free reign over Black men. And just like slavery, those Black men were “overworked, brutally whipped and even killed” while under the control of White landowners.

No chains, No change…

The mid-1980’s introduced the War on Drugs, an anti-drug effort which focused on urban, Black neighborhoods. Although there was no great difference in drug use and sales across racial lines, Blacks were more likely than Whites to be stopped, searched, arrested, convicted and incarcerated which resulted in the prison population tripling in thirty years. As Blacks are arrested three times as often as any other race and comprise fifty-nine percent of inmates incarcerated for drug-related offenses, these numbers indicate just how drug offenses have become the new Black Codes so it is not surprising that “for a Black man in his thirties, one in ten is in jail or prison on any given day. . . and one in three has the likelihood of a lifetime incarceration.”

Politicians and policy-makers created a so-called link between skin color and criminality and began to promulgate the idea that lawlessness was a “colored” problem. This hoopla resulted in a scheme known as racial profiling that used law enforcement as a tool to discriminate. The rates of minority, mostly Black men, arrests and convictions due to racial profiling indicates just how the legal system maintains the misleading link between criminality and race and focuses on those who have a lower claim to social resources. But several scholars warned that the prison industrial complex scheme was targeted at, and a detriment to, minorities and the underprivileged. In her article entitled, Masked Racism: Reflections on the Prison Industrial Complex, activist, author, and tenured professor Angela Davis said, “imprisonment has become the [first response] to far too many of the social problems that burden people who are [hidden] in poverty. These problems often are. . . conveniently grouped together under the category “crime” and [this criminal behavior is automatically attributed] to people of color.” Seventeen years later, this still rings true.

With the rates at which Black men were imprisoned, prison overcrowding was inevitable. When problems arose regarding the financing of new prisons, for-profit, private prisons replaced the nineteenth century landowners. In the mid-1980’s, in conjunction with the War on Drugs, private prisons began contracting with governments to be paid monthly or per diem rates to house prisoners in its facilities. These contracts generally include occupancy requirements that mandate facilities to be kept at as much as eighty to 100 percent capacity at all times. Additionally, corporations such as the Corrections Corporation of America (“CCA”), the largest for-profit, private prison corporation in operation, retains the right to refuse inmates that are classified as disruptive or cost more to house like the physically or mentally ill .[i] As its name suggests, making a profit is the business of for-profit prisoning and this can only be accomplished by keeping beds full by any means necessary. With this at its helm, is there really a question as to why CCA co-chaired a task force that initiated a campaign to adopt harsher sentencing laws? Laws such as the “3 Strikes” law, which mandates life imprisonment for three felony convictions, and the “Truth in Sentencing” law, that requires inmates to serve eighty-five percent of their sentences before being considered for release all but guarantee prisons will burst at their seams while simultaneously stuffing the pockets of White, private prison executives such as George Zoley and Henry Wedell.[ii]



In 2013, CCA posted nearly $1.7 billion in revenue in one quarter alone and in that same three month period, CCA earned $300 million in profits. Not a bad gig if you can get it. But if that ain’t enough, due to government contracts, 100 percent of that money came from taxpayer dollars. However, and unfortunately, corporations are not the only ones profiting from convictions, incarceration rates and unjust imprisonment. Members of the legal community are cashing in on this cow too. In 2011, a Pennsylvania judge participated in a conspiracy to unjustly incarcerate juvenile offenders in private detention centers owned and operated by his friends. This collusion netted millions of dollars. After being convicted of accepting bribes, the judge was rightfully sentenced to twenty-eight years in prison.

Private prisons are simply convict leasing with greater profit margins. More than thirty-seven states have passed laws permitting the use of convict labor by commercial enterprises such as Dell, Intel, Nordstrom’s, Target Stores, and many more. Companies will gladly pay inmates, on average, around two dollars a day to enjoy the fruits of investing in inmate labor. For these corporations, inmate labor is like finding a pot of gold as inmate labor means corporations never have to worry about employee strikes, unemployment insurance, vacations, late arrivals or absences, or family issues. Financially, corporations have no need to worry about profit shortages as incarceration rates lead to an overwhelmingly, increasing prison population that guarantees a steady labor force.

Governments and corporations maintain that through work schedules and salaries, inmate work programs make inmates productive, moral and turn prisoners into “real people with real ambition.” Most inmates will not argue against programs designed to reduce idleness or assist in providing marketable skills, work experience and wages. However, inmate work programs have long since subtracted any sort of inmate development initiatives from the equation and added commercial gain as it is now commonplace for economies to totally rely on inmate labor to the detriment of their communities. In 2013, when the Robeson County Correctional Center (“RCCC”) in Lumberton, North Carolina, closed its doors, officials were worried about how to compensate for the lost work generated by inmate labor. Twenty-six inmates were each paid one dollar a day for work that would cost the county $750,000 a year in non-inmate salaries. RCCC depended on inmate labor to such a large extent that officials considered employing inmates from surrounding counties as opposed to hiring non-inmates. It is choices such as these that speak directly to the nation’s unemployment rates. But what if an inmate decided he did not want to work or would not work for the wages offered? Well, quite frankly, he would be placed in segregation until he complied, labeled “uncooperative” and transferred to a less “desirable” facility and/or risk losing any good time earned. And how ironic is it that inmates are forced to work for companies that, because of their convictions, these same companies would refuse to hire once released? Reminiscent of sharecroppers working lands they would never actually own?

The United States’ leads the world in incarceration rates. With a 500 percent increase over the last forty years, [iii] inmates have become hot commodities for governments and corporations alike. Although inmate labor is a new form of inhumane exploitation that has been condemned by human rights, political and social organizations, government contracts with private for-profit prisons have bred inmates to be the mechanisms for the high profit margins of big businesses. Any time a person is commanded to work without being provided just compensation, an obvious human rights violation occurs. The Black man has withstood centuries of use and abuse due to America’s history of implementing policies directed at Black men that yield nearly free labor. These policies continue as corporations and governments that continue to support inmate work programs have, inherently, brought slavery full circle.

“There’s no such thing as free. There are only different and more horrible ways to be enslaved.”     

Lauren DeStefano

[i]  Andy Kroll, This Is How Private Prison Companies Make Millions Even When Crime Rates Fall, Mother Jones, http://www.motherjones.com/mojo/2013/09/private-prisons-occupancy-quota-cca-crime (Last visited March 27, 2015).

[ii]  Beau Hodai, Corporate Con Game: How the private prison industry helped shape Arizona’s anti-immigrant law, http://inthesetimes.org/article/6084/corporate_con_game (Last visited March 27, 2015); Ray Downs, Who’s Getting Rich off the Prison-Industrial Complex?http://www.vice.com/read/whos-getting-rich-off-the-prison-industrial-complex (Last visited March 26, 2015).

[iii] E. Ann Carson and Daniela Golinelli, Prisoners in 2012-Advance Counts, U.S. Department of Justice: Bureau of Justice Statistics, http://www.bjs.gov/content/pub/pdf/p12ac.pdf. (Last visited March 27, 2015).

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