Slavery and Prison - Understanding the Connections

by Kim Gilmore

"I'M BEGINNING TO BELIEVE THAT `U.S.A.' STANDS FOR THE UNDERPRIVILEGED Slaves of America" (Esposito and Wood, 1982: 149), wrote a 20th-century prisoner from Mississippi in a letter detailing the daily violence he witnessed behind prison walls. His statement resounds with 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. In the year 2000, as the punishment industry becomes a leading employer and producer for the U.S. "state," and as private prison and "security" corporations bargain to control the profits of this traffic in human unfreedom, the analogies between slavery and prison abound. This year the U.S. prison population cascaded past 2,000,000, 1 with millions more under the jurisdiction of the criminal justice system in local jails awaiting trial, in INS prisons awaiting deportation, or in their homes linked with criminal justice authorities through ankle bracelets that track their every move. Recent studies of the prison boom stress the persistent disparities in sentencing according to race -- prison populations continue to be disproportionately African American and Latino. With longer sentences being imposed for nonviolent drug offenses, with aggressive campaigns aimed at criminalizing young people, and with the growing number of children left orphaned by the criminal justice system, the carceral reach of the state and private corporations resonates with the history of slavery and marks a level of human bondage unparalleled in the 20th century.

Scholars and activists have plunged into an examination of the historical origins of racialized slavery as a coercive labor form and social system in an attempt to explain the huge increase in mass incarceration in the U.S. since the end of World War II. Drawing these links has been important in explaining the relationship between racism and criminalization after emancipation, and in connecting the rise of industrial and mechanized labor to the destructive effects of deindustrialization and globalization. The point of retracing this history is not to argue that prisons have been a direct outgrowth of slavery, but to interrogate the persistent connections between racism and the global economy. Mass imprisonment on the level seen in the U.S. in the 20th century occupies a phase along the spectrum of unfree labor related to, yet distinct from, chattel slavery. As many scholars of the punishment industry have shown, regardless of the labor prisoners do to service the larger economy (either private or public), prisons increasingly function in the U.S. economy as answers to the devastation unleashed by the dual forces of Reaganomics and the globalization of capital (Parenti, 1999; Gilmore, 1997; Manning, 1983). The immediate post-emancipation period is a key place to start in outlining the investment of the U.S. state in this trade in humanity.

Related to the above is the growth of new abolitionist movements whose goals are the elimination of mass imprisonment as a method of treatment for addiction and mental illness, as an economic ameliorative, and as a method of social control -- what one scholar has termed "the carceral management of poverty" (Wacquant, 1999: 349). The connections between slavery and imprisonment have been used by abolitionists as an historical explanation and as part of a radical political strategy that questions the feasibility of "reform" as an appropriate response to prison expansion. As a leader in the creation of this new abolitionist movement, Angela Davis (1996: 26) has written, "I choose the word `abolitionist' deliberately. The 13th Amendment, when it abolished slavery, did so except for convicts. Through the prison system, the vestiges of slavery have persisted. It thus makes sense to use a word that has this historical resonance." Though some 20th-century abolitionist movements connect themselves expressly with the tradition of 19th-century abolitionists and antislavery advocates, abolitionism as defined here is the conglomerate of many local movements that express abolitionist aims indirectly through challenging the fundamental methods of the prison-industrial complex -- mandatory minimum sentences, harsh penalties for nonviolent drug offenses, and the continuous construction of prisons that goes on regardless of crime rates. Although a fully conceptualized abolitionism is starting to emerge, it may be useful to outline some of the historical antecedents to current anti-prison and antiracist movements.

As prison construction and the crime frenzy continue around the U.S. (and indeed, the world) at such a dizzying pace, calls for prison abolition risk being perceived as utopian. The state, as it is currently configured in the U.S., has a primary investment in making the world safe for free trade, with domestic "stability" through state violence and brutality a key method of achieving the temporary fašade of stability. In rural and urban areas crippled by the slow decline in manufacturing and skilled jobs, the punishment industry has emerged as the new jobs program, a role it plays with the military.2 In this moment, it may seem more difficult than ever to envision a state that supports humanity rather than eviscerates the possibility of freedom and health for so many of its people. Yet it is precisely now, when prisons crowd the physical and psychic landscape, that imagining abolition is most critical. Thus, the new abolitionism has arisen out of the communities most affected by the prison state -- those least able to conceptualize anything other than a transformation of the state as it is currently configured.

Studies of the relationship between slavery and mass imprisonment have a long history in the United States and internationally.3 This article will discuss some of the connections activist groups have made between the legacy of slavery and the prison expansion of the last several decades, starting with a brief outline of some of the historical scholarship on the convict lease program, the Black Codes, and later, Jim Crow. Tracing this history and the relationship between slavery and prison expansion can help inform current efforts toward prison abolition and provide a context for moving beyond reforms that have usually boosted the carceral state through a rejuvenation of the prison system, rather than clearing a path for true liberation and transformation.

From the vantage point of post-slavery emancipation, it seemed like the possibility of genuine freedom and democracy for freed slaves was a reality in the making. Although the roots of 19th-century abolitionism were varied, the popular understanding is that it was a middle-class movement led by whites and a few ex-slaves. In reality, much of the scholarship on abolitionism conflicts with this limited conception of the coalitions that powered the move to end slavery (Aptheker, 1941; Robinson, 1997). Whether rushing over Union lines to fight against the Confederacy, planning slave revolts, or resisting slavery through countless individual acts, freed blacks and slaves challenged the foundations of a labor and social system based on racialized slavery. Anti-slavery efforts spearheaded by slaves pushed emancipation as they refused to accept the terms of gradual emancipation. African-American slaves and anti-slavery activists sought not only the abolition of slavery as a labor form, but also a broader realization of slaves' dreams of freedom, alive despite hundreds of years of violence and coerced labor (Du Bois, 1935; Foner, 1988; McKelvey, 1935). These visions of freedom rarely conformed to the narrowly articulated parameters defined in the Constitution; yet to make their ideas plausible to the state, freed slaves often had to frame their arguments for freedom in the language and categories constructed by the formal state. Although the creation of African-American free communities and institutions during Reconstruction were almost immediately threatened by new configurations of white power and supremacy, freed slaves continued to exercise their right to vote and hold office in order to enact their own plans for education, land ownership, and self-determination. This incomplete transformation was cut short by vigilante justice and racialized violence, as well as by the state-sponsored criminalization of African Americans.

In the past decade, several influential studies of this period have revealed the relationship between emancipation, the 13th Amendment, and the convict lease program (Lichtenstein, 1996a; Mancini, 1996; Davis, 1999). Built into the 13th Amendment was state authorization to use prison labor as a bridge between slavery and paid work. Slavery was abolished "except as a punishment for crime." This stipulation provided the intellectual and legal mechanisms to enable the state to use "unfree" labor by leasing prisoners to local businesses and corporations desperate to rebuild the South's infrastructure. During this period, white "Redeemers" -- white planters, small farmers, and political leaders -- set out to rebuild the pre-emancipation racial order by enacting laws that restricted black access to political representation and by creating Black Codes that, among other things, increased the penalties for crimes such as vagrancy, loitering, and public drunkenness (Davis, 2000). As African Americans continued the process of building schools, churches, and social organizations, and vigorously fought for political participation, a broad coalition of Redeemers used informal and state-sponsored forms of violence and repression to roll back the gains made during Reconstruction. Thus, mass imprisonment was employed as a means of coercing resistant freed slaves into becoming wage laborers. Prison populations soared during this period, enabling the state to play a critical role in mediating the brutal terms of negotiation between capitalism and the spectrum of unfree labor. The transition from slave-based agriculture to industrial economies thrust ex-slaves and "unskilled" laborers into new labor arrangements that left them vulnerable to depressed, resistant white workers or pushed them outside the labor market completely.

The transfer of power to the state signaled by the 13th Amendment profoundly reshaped the political landscape along with emancipation. By empowering the state to regulate relationships between private individuals, the state also gained the ability to determine the contours of freedom and unfreedom. The expansion of state jurisdiction thus had the dual effect of establishing legal rights for African Americans while paving the way for new, state-maintained structures of racism. Convict labor became increasingly racialized: it was assumed that blacks were more suitable for hard physical labor on Southern prison farms and on corporate railroad and construction company projects (Lichtenstein, 1996b). Contrary to popular representations of chain gang labor, not only black men, but also black women were forced to work on the lines and on hard labor projects, revealing how the slave order was being mirrored in the emerging punishment system. This mimicking of the slave system structure in the post-emancipation prison system, particularly in the South, suggested a belief that the performance of antebellum culture could bring the slave system back to life (Jackson, 1999). In Northern prisons, which had historically been structured around industrial rather than agricultural labor, racially based divisions were sharpened after emancipation as well. African Americans were criminalized for committing Black Code-type crimes and often were subject to tougher sentences than those imposed upon whites convicted of similar crimes (Du Bois, 1935).

Even though the efforts of ex-slaves and other abolitionists made it impossible to reinstall legalized chattel slavery, racialized labor arrangements persisted in the form of convict labor. Convict labor built the post-Civil War infrastructure in the U.S., not just in the South but also throughout the U.S., and the struggle to determine how free unfree labor would be continued. Labor unions, which had always been skeptical about prison labor, aggressively lobbied against the leasing of convicts to private corporations. Throughout the Depression years, unionists made it clear that an expanded use of prison labor would further imperil an already overfull work force and intervene in "free markets" in ways that threatened the stability of capitalism and laid bare its most excessive failures. Slowly, prisons and jails solved this problem by developing a "state-use" system in which prison labor was used solely for state projects. This solution eliminated the competition between convict labor and union labor, while still enabling convicts to offset their cost to the state (McGinn, 1993). The Prison Industries Reorganization Administration (PIRA), a New Deal project, conducted a massive study of prison labor in all 50 states and concluded by outlining this new state-use system. Citing overcrowding and inadequate facilities, the PIRA recommended the expansion of the prison system and the construction of new prisons in almost every state (Fraser and Gerstle, 1989). No clear statistics demonstrate that "crime," particularly violent crime, had increased during this period. Moreover, many of those who ended up in prison were criminalized for crimes stemming from unemployment, suggesting that if the state had had a handle on unemployment, there may not have been a need for more prisons. Thus, the PIRA embodied one of the many contradictions embedded in the "New Deal state" -- its inability (or unwillingness) to deal with its overabundance of labor. Thus, the PIRA, together with a racialized labor system that had roots in the slave system, cleared the path for the prison-industrial complex that has flourished in the post-World War II period.

Given the links between the legacy of slavery and mass imprisonment of people of color in the U.S., it might be useful to examine how a few previous prison abolition movements positioned themselves in relation to this history. These groups were often led by Quakers or inspired by the Quaker abolitionists of the 19th century. One such group, the Committee to Abolish Prison Slavery (CAPS), was active in the late 1970s and early 1980s and saw the abolition of mass imprisonment as the key to completing the partial emancipation signaled by the 13th Amendment. According to CAPS, which produced Prison Slavery, their collaboratively authored book, the triumph of emancipation was not a total victory since the 13th Amendment legalized penal servitude as punishment for particular crimes, a stipulation that was incorporated into many state constitutions. Prison Slavery (Esposito and Wood, 1982:114) cites the significant 1871 court ruling from Ruffin v. Commonwealth. This landmark Virginia case--revealingly argued using the language of slavery -- set a precedent for state control of inmate bodies and labor:

[1] For the time, during his term of service in the penitentiary, he is in a state of penal servitude to the State. He has, as a consequence of his crime, not only forfeited his liberty, but all his personal rights except those which the law in its humanity accords to him. He is for the time being a slave of the State. He is civiliter mortus; and his estate, if he has any, is administered like that of a dead man.

CAPS found much to admire in the 19th-century slave abolition movement, but viewed penal servitude as a new incarnation of slavery. The group critiqued the failure of abolitionists, particularly Quakers, who worked to overthrow the Southern slave regime but stopped short of eliminating the broader inequalities that were reflected in the prison system. CAPS was, essentially, struggling to define the continuing nature of unfree labor and was critical of the Quakers who preceded them for participating in class oppression.

When Prison Slavery was published in 1982, many states still had clauses in their constitutions that deemed slavery and indentured servitude legal punishments or had no proviso about the legality or illegality of prison enslavement (some states eliminated any reference to slavery in the middle decades of this century). Since this 13th Amendment provision was, for CAPS, the legal cornerstone codifying prison slavery, they proposed a "new abolitionism" that would make the elimination of these clauses from all constitutions its goal. Their abolitionist strategies also included education campaigns to inform the public about prison conditions, an issue typically relegated to the sidelines of an individual's physical and psychic landscapes. The group also advocated boycotting consumer products made by prison labor, supporting alternatives to imprisonment, and working toward an acknowledgement of the class-based exploitation inherent in mass imprisonment. By circulating petitions that would amend state punishment clauses, CAPS created alliances between prisoners on the inside and activists on the outside. They learned of the brutalities that often occurred behind prison walls through testimonies from inmates who had developed their own analyses of prison system injustices, but frequently found themselves confined by the limited resources available to them, or constrained by criminal justice administrators and guards who threatened prisoners with violence for expressing their views and working for change.

Like CAPS, the Prison Research Education Action Project (PREAP) saw the abolition of prisons as the only avenue for real change, for reform movements generally succeeded only in temporarily improving prison conditions rather than questioning the very efficacy of long-term punishment. In their handbook for change, Instead of Prisons, PREAP catalogued the general sentiment of the prison abolition movement of the 1970s -- espoused by elected officials, inmates, ex-cons, former prison administrators, and inmate advocates -- that evidence revealed that incarceration was hardly a deterrent to crime and that it actually tended to exacerbate crime. The early 1970s marked the onset of new drug laws and sentencing guidelines, such as the Rockefeller drug laws in New York that provided the legal justification for prison expansion throughout the U.S. During the first half of the 1970s, however, a prisoners' rights revolution was going on, in which prisoners all over the U.S. were filing individual and class action lawsuits that challenged the constitutionality of the conditions existing within U.S. prisons, including unchecked violence and inhumane working situations (Chilton, 1991; Natale and Rosenberg, 1974; Cohen, 1972). Legal theorists -- using evidence that attempts of reform movements to improve conditions inside prisons continually fell short and failed to protect inmates from cruel and unusual punishment -- argued that the state's goal should be the gradual elimination of long-term sentences for drug offenders and other nonviolent prisoners. While these lawsuits brought abolitionist views into the courts, groups like PREAP were learning to balance legal strategies for change with other tactics. Such tactics included gathering acknowledgements from different arenas that mass imprisonment was falling -- falling to address the problems of violence, falling to rehabilitate, and failing to provide anything but a destructive response to issues of racism, unemployment, and deindustrialization.

The working group that assembled Instead of Prisons put forward compelling arguments that illustrated the limits of reform. They argued that although prison reform movements could change the material existences of people in prison in real and important ways at particular moments, at the core reformers accept the premise that there is value in mass punishment. The activists writing this volume thus faced the very difficult task of trying to conceptualize abolition while acknowledging the importance of creating short-term strategies for change. They called for an immediate moratorium on prison construction and illustrated the ways in which the state was funneling money into incarceration rather than education. The authors pointed to the importance of creating and supporting innovative alternatives to incarceration, which then (as now) were not given a chance to succeed. More fundamentally, they interrogated the mythologies of deterrence and turned definitions of crime inside out by asking how the state produces criminalization rather than how people produce crime. Without underplaying the very real tragedies resulting from violence, both within and outside prisons, PREAP tried to envision responses to these issues that would limit violence rather than increase it.

From the late 1960s to the mid- 1970s, the prisoners' rights movement helped to bring the violence and disorder that prevailed in U.S. prisons to the forefront of public consciousness. Previous to the landmark prisoners' rights cases of the 1960s and 1970s, a "hands-off" policy had left the administration of prisons to criminal justice officials. Yet, as prisoners filed cases that slowly revealed the human rights abuses that were common throughout the criminal justice system, the tide began to turn. Cases like Holt v. Sarver in Arkansas drew attention to issues of prison violence. The Arkansas court ruled that the entire prison system constituted cruel and unusual punishment after investigators discovered that inmates were routinely beaten, packed into unlivable living quarters, and forced to work excruciating shifts on the prison farms while being undernourished and constantly threatened with violence. This case, and others, led to a vast federal assessment of state prison systems. By the early 1980s, dozens of prisons were under federal court supervision for violating the rights of inmates. Despite all this, prisons already had started to operate as industries and the abolitionist expressions of anti-incarceration advocates were lost amid the "law and order" rhetoric that eventually helped elect Ronald Reagan in 1980.

Groups like CAPS and PREAP suffered because they did not understand the processes of globalization and deindustrialization taking place concurrently with prison expansion. Just as the aftermath of 19th-century emancipation reproduced the racial hierarchies of slavery in the structures of the criminal justice system, during the post-World War II period new economic and social configurations provided fresh impetus to the acceleration of prison building. Ruth Wilson Gilmore (1997) traces how these transformations -- globalization, reindustrialization, imperialism, and racism -- converged in the 1960s and 1970s. Unfortunately, activists inside and outside prisons refused to see these changes as "forces," but instead as choices that emerged from state reconciliation with capital. Prisons were the physical structures called upon to help respond to the chaos unleashed by the globalization of capital and they were supposed to (at least in theory) contain the array of struggles waged against these processes by people of color, immigrants, and the poor.

Although new prison construction was propelled by state officials, corrections administrators, and politicians, it was also endorsed by populations who have benefited from deindustrialization and globalization. A new and growing body of scholarship has shown how racist ideologies of exclusion generated by white property owners and voters, among others, have underpinned the social and political fields in the U.S. after World War II. Ideologies of white privilege, though perhaps not always articulated as such, were put in motion through red-lining projects, discriminatory union practices, and the privatization of public spaces, all of which hastened the exclusion of people of color from the realm of state protections (Roediger, 1991; Goldfield, 1999; Lipsitz, 1998; Oliver and Shapiro, 1995). These forms of welfare -- suburbanization and privatization -- were often administered by the state through the same people who were active on neighborhood association boards, school boards, and corrections and police boards. Whiteness, just as it functioned in the 19th century to pave over class differences in the interest of racial solidarity, also has contributed to structuring urban poverty and to building the fear of criminal populations (nonwhites) that has fueled the construction of the prison-industrial complex.

Previous prison abolition movements seem to have understood mass incarceration as a class-based injustice perpetrated against the working classes and the poor. Yet as Angela Davis has pointed out, prison abolitionists have much to gain from building coalitions with those who focus on the abolition of "whiteness" as a way to approach the effects of racism embodied in the prison-industrial complex (Gordon, 1998). Because racism has played such a central role in the proliferation of prisons and the irrational fear of crime (helping to assure passage of legislation like California's Proposition 21), imagining abolitionism requires us to envision the elimination of the privileges of whiteness, as well as a divestment of public resources from prison building. Because the uneven distribution of state resources that has contributed to the prison-industrial complex has been driven by racism, movements that challenge the terms of mass imprisonment will necessarily be joined with antiracist movements, which acknowledge the continued racialization of state resource distribution.

The echoes of slavery still reverberate throughout the prison state; earlier this year, the Wackenhut corporation announced a new contract to build a federal prison on the site of a former slave plantation in North Carolina. This brings us back to the question of the feasibility of anti-incarceration movements. In the age of Proposition 21, the Super-Max, the rapid reinvigoration of the death penalty, globalization, and the convergence of the two political parties in the U.S. around punishment as a corrective to unemployment and race problems, can prison abolitionism be heard? The answer is "yes," for the very starkness of this moment breathes new life into abolitionism as a counter to reforms that accept the terms of human destruction and devastation inherent in contemporary prisons. Throughout the U.S., and increasingly throughout the world, prison abolitionism is finding new life as local movements against prison construction, mandatory minimum sentences, and the criminalization of youth are created out of the very communities they decimate. This year, as Western European nations and corporations finally have been forced to accept their complicity in the use of slave labor under Nazism, perhaps the issue of reparations for slavery in the U.S. will at last gain legitimacy in a country that has institutionalized new forms of slavery rather than vanquish bondage completely.


1. For the most recent statistics, see reports from the Justice Policy Institute released in 2000.

2. Though research on prison employment has shown that these jobs are opening up in far smaller numbers than those predicted by prison boosters, it remains the case that the new jobs produced by the prison-industrial complex and local police are often filled by poor and working-class people.

3. Though space does not permit an analysis of global movements for prison abolition, see the materials published by the International Committee on Prison Abolition. This year's May conference features perspectives on prison abolition from international scholars, including those from Nigeria, Costa Rica, Canada, and Finland. See also the connections made between South African apartheid and American prisons.


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