“In the 1970s the US prison system was crumbling. In Walpole, San Quentin, Soledad, Angola and many other prisons, people were standing up, fighting and taking ownership of their lives and bodies back from the plantation prisons. For the last six years we have remembered and renewed that struggle. In the interim, the prisoner population has ballooned and technologies of control and confinement have developed into the most sophisticated and repressive in world history. The prisons have become more dependent on slavery and torture to maintain their stability.

Prisoners are forced to work for little or no pay. That is slavery. The 13th amendment to the US constitution maintains a legal exception for continued slavery in US prisons. It states “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.” Overseers watch over our every move, and if we do not perform our appointed tasks to their liking, we are punished. They may have replaced the whip with pepper spray, but many of the other torments remain: isolation, restraint positions, stripping off our clothes and investigating our bodies as though we are animals.

Slavery is alive and well in the prison system, but by the end of this year, it won’t be anymore. This is a call to end slavery in America. This call goes directly to the slaves themselves. We are not making demands or requests of our captors, we are calling ourselves to action. To every prisoner in every state and federal institution across this land, we call on you to stop being a slave, to let the crops rot in the plantation fields, to go on strike and cease reproducing the institutions of your confinement. This is a call for a nation-wide prisoner work stoppage to end prison slavery, starting on September 9th, 2016. They cannot run these facilities without us.

Non-violent protests, work stoppages, hunger strikes and other refusals to participate in prison routines and needs have increased in recent years. The 2010 Georgia prison strike, the massive rolling California hunger strikes, the Free Alabama Movement’s 2014 work stoppage, have gathered the most attention, but they are far from the only demonstrations of prisoner power. Large, sometimes effective hunger strikes have broken out at Ohio State Penitentiary, at Menard Correctional in Illinois, at Red Onion in Virginia as well as many other prisons. The burgeoning resistance movement is diverse and interconnected, including immigrant detention centers, women’s prisons and juvenile facilities. Last fall, women prisoners at Yuba County Jail in California joined a hunger strike initiated by women held in immigrant detention centers in California, Colorado and Texas.

Prisoners all across the country regularly engage in myriad demonstrations of power on the inside. They have most often done so with convict solidarity, building coalitions across race lines and gang lines to confront the common oppressor. Forty-five years after Attica, the waves of change are returning to America’s prisons. This September we hope to coordinate and generalize these protests, to build them into a single tidal shift that the American prison system cannot ignore or withstand. We hope to end prison slavery by making it impossible, by refusing to be slaves any longer.

To achieve this goal, we need support from people on the outside. A prison is an easy-lockdown environment, a place of control and confinement where repression is built into every stone wall and chain link, every gesture and routine. When we stand up to these authorities, they come down on us, and the only protection we have is solidarity from the outside. Mass incarceration, whether in private or state-run facilities is a scheme where slave catchers patrol our neighborhoods and monitor our lives. It requires mass criminalization. Our tribulations on the inside are a tool used to control our families and communities on the outside. Certain Americans live every day under not only the threat of extra-judicial execution—as protests surrounding the deaths of Mike Brown, Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland and so many others have drawn long overdue attention to—but also under the threat of capture, of being thrown into these plantations, shackled and forced to work.

Our protest against prison slavery is a protest against the school to prison pipeline, a protest against police terror, a protest against post-release controls. When we abolish slavery, they’ll lose much of their incentive to lock up our children, they’ll stop building traps to pull back those who they’ve released. When we remove the economic motive and grease of our forced labor from the US prison system, the entire structure of courts and police, of control and slave-catching must shift to accommodate us as humans, rather than slaves.”

The 13th Amendment did not abolish slavery, but let it live on in U.S. prisons
by Shaun King  /  September 21, 2016

“What I am about to tell you is going to be hard for you to accept. It goes against everything we were ever taught about the history of this country. We have been duped. The history books were wrong and right under our noses one of the greatest conspiracies in American history has taken place over the past 150 years. The 13th Amendment to the United States Constitution did not end slavery. In fact, it is the first time the word “slavery” was ever mentioned in the Constitution and it is in this amendment where it is not abolished once and for all as we were taught, but given the constitutional protection that has maintained the practice of American slavery in various forms to this very day.

It is why, right now, the largest prison strike in American history is about to enter its third week — the men and women inside of those prisons are effectively slaves. Their free or nearly free labor represents, according to Alice Speri, “a $2 billion a year industry that employs nearly 900,000 prisoners while paying them a few cents an hour in some states, and nothing at all in others. “In addition to work for private companies, prisoners also cook, clean, and work on maintenance and construction in the prisons themselves — forcing officials to pay staff to carry out those tasks in response to work stoppages.

American chattel slavery from 1619 until 1865 was an undoubtedly ugly, horrific, traumatic, oppressive, bigoted institution. This nation was literally and figuratively built on the backs of hundreds of years of free labor. After the Civil War, which was the bloodiest war in this nation’s history and cost the country as many as 750,000 lives in combat, the Emancipation Proclamation effectively freed over 3 million enslaved men, women and children from forced plantation bondage. Following that, the 13th Amendment to the United States Constitution was ratified in 1865 to end the institution of slavery as we knew it. Slavery appeared to be done once and for all, but that amendment, which is still very much the law of the land today, as essential, historic and groundbreaking as it was, has a poison pill, a trapdoor, an escape clause embedded in its core.

With these three words, “except as punishment,” the 13th Amendment fell far short of offering the nation a full, complete and true ban of the practice of slavery. Instead, the institution shape-shifted and morphed in peculiar ways — still primarily on black backs, but inside of less offensive systems and structures which made it a much more complicated and nebulous target. Forty-seven words. The entire 13th Amendment, one of the most well-known of our entire Constitution, is just 47 words long. It could literally fit on a Post-it note. Yet, about a third of those words aren’t about ending slavery, but are shockingly about how and when slavery could receive a wink and a nod to continue.

Before the 13th Amendment was ratified, scores of publications and speeches the world over were published by abolitionists describing the horrors of slavery and why the institution must die. Sen. Charles Sumner of Massachusetts, a fierce opponent of slavery, speaking before the United States Senate on April 8, 1864, made a very interesting observation in his speech. “The dismal words ‘slave’ and ‘slavery’ do not appear in the Constitution,” Sumner said. This point, a central one in his speech advocating for what would eventually become the 13th Amendment, was made in a wider argument that the institution of slavery was not a constitutionally protected right of slaveholders.

Beyond being on shaky moral and ethical grounds, slavery, Sumner said, simply didn’t have a constitutional leg to stand on and he was right. Slavery had never been mentioned, and certainly was not sanctioned by the Constitution. That’s what makes the 13th Amendment subversively complex. The very thing Sumner argued as the foundation for his opposition to slavery actually disappeared when the amendment to ban slavery was finally ratified on December 18, 1865. Other than the obvious reality that slavery was now mentioned by name in the Constitution, the 13th Amendment is also strangely where the first full legal justification was given for the practice. In essence, the 13th Amendment both banned and justified slavery in one fell swoop. It’s convoluted, but, until very recently, it was primarily held up as America’s ability to overcome its own faults. History has proven that to be less than truthful.

In 1940, 75 years after the 13th Amendment was issued, a “Commemoration of the 75th Anniversary of the Proclamation of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution of the United States” called “75 Years of Freedom” was held. Musical performances, art exhibits and historical artifacts were assembled in celebration of the fact that slavery had been dead and gone for generations — when, in fact, a worm was in the apple. Slavery was not dead — it had simply changed form and label.

Richard Verdugo, the senior research scientist for the National Education Association, stated in “The Making of the African American Population: The Economic Status of the Ex-Slave and Freedmen Population in Post-Civil War America, 1860-1920,” that “the South, initially devastated by the war, re-emerged as Southern Conservatives took back their privileges through political re-alliance and violence.

As whites took back the South, they introduced a different kind of race-based stratification system.” Verdugo’s characterization of the period following slavery is accurate, but moderate and conventional. It turns out that “race-based stratification system” was less a new creation and more a 2.0 of the old system. Douglas Blackmon won the Pulitzer Prize for his brilliant 2008 work, “Slavery by Another Name,” in which he details how American corporations, almost immediately after the 13th Amendment was ratified, colluded with local governments to criminalize blackness in the name of profits.

While the award was deserved, another man named Omar Ali-Bey, a local community activist in Cleveland who has long since passed away, was saying just as much himself a full 18 years before Blackmon. In the Call and Post in Cleveland, Ali-Bey wrote in 1990 “the 13th Amendment says slavery is still legal. Slavery is legal in prisons. You better wake up and see this conspiracy for what it really is.” No doubt, Ali-Bey was likely viewed by many as a crackpot conspiracy theorist, but he was actually right. What he and many other Afrocentric thinkers of the 1980s and early ’90s were laughed at for saying was very much true. Prison growth has been exploding for 20 straight years when Ali-Bey wrote that local op-ed, and private corporations and publicly traded companies were finding the prison industrial complex a lucrative industry. By the Fall of 2000, Kim Gilmore, in an essay entitled “Slavery and Prisons – Understanding the Connections,” tells the story of “a long tradition of prisoners, particularly African-American prisoners, who have used the language and narrative of slavery to describe the conditions of their imprisonment.”

The 13th Amendment, less than it truly banned slavery, banned a very particular type of slavery and replaced it with new systems that effectively targeted and benefited the same people as the old systems. In 2008, Kamal Ghali, right around the same time “Slavery By Another Name” was released, wrote in the UCLA Law Review called this section of the 13th Amendment the “punishment clause” and examined the state-by-state complexities and debates around whether any protections from the 13th Amendment even apply to those who are incarcerated. Michael Coard, a journalist and community activist in Philadelphia, writing for the Philadelphia Tribune in 2015 on the 150th Anniversary of the 13th Amendment, asked and answered, “What’s the solution? , it’s certainly not to abolish the 13th Amendment. Instead, it’s to amend the amendment so it will say ‘Slavery and involuntary servitude are hereby abolished.’ Period.”

Writing for the conservative National Review, Theodore Johnson stated that we should all “thank God and the GOP for the 13th Amendment” 150 years after its passing. It seems the 13th Amendment itself may actually be the bedrock of our modern day prison industrial complex, in which the United States has more people behind bars than any other country in the world. It’s not even close. Considered alongside the fact that not only can imprisoned Americans not vote, but also millions who have already served their time are also denied their right to vote, it is clear this system was designed to particularly penalize one segment of this country. In “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Color Blindness,” legal scholar Michelle Alexander skillfully shows the common threads running directly from slavery to “slavery by another name” to Jim Crow to modern America — the nefarious implications of the 13th Amendment represent a consistent thread in that tapestry. Whether the authors of the 13th Amendment fully understood how it could one day be abused is debatable, but certainly we know the section allowing slavery to exist for those convicted of a crime was put there on purpose. I say this often, but we must resist the urge to call this current system “broken.” It’s not broken — it was built this way on purpose and is functioning just the way it was intended to function.”



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