I went to see a film called The 19th. Knew it was about something important but not exactly what. Now I know. Seeing The 19th was like a splat of cold water in the face and a stabbing pain in my heart. Seeing what is going on in great number without any of us knowing was like living writer Hannah Arendt’s “the banality of evil,” the experience of Germans living next to concentration camps and not seeing them, intent on leading “moral” lives. Are we the same? Is there something good about our ability to turn a blind eye to what might alarm us? There is a bit of comfort in denying what is going on until we too fall into the pit. The 19th Amendment has to do with how we run our prisons, their purpose and means. Nothing said about the effect on prisoners.
US prisons are cells with bars, everywhere enclosed spaces watched by often violent guards. The experience for prisoners is one of fear and aggression, hopelessness, boredom and work. There is no training for the future. There is only now. Recidivism is high when the prisoner is released. It is different in Germany where prison is an open place full of teachers and inmate-students, people acquiring important skills and speaking about emotional problems. German recidivism is low. Treat a human as worthy and that is what get. Treat that person like an animal and their behavior follows suit. Would you expect anything else?
Those who wrote the 19th Constitutional amendment after the Civil War were mostly men of wealth and means. The 19th, seemingly well-intended writers kicked slavery out the front door and snuck it in the back. It said that no man could be forced to work for free (or for pitifully little) unless he was in prison. That statement is like a Trojan Horse with bells on it. You commit a crime or are reported to have committed one and you are transferred to the work gang..
This intentional parasitism did not come out of nowhere. Early America grew wealthy on the sale of tobacco , cotton and sugar raised by slaves. Slaves build great mansions for white folks including the White House where they served. Slaves built colleges and slave labor supported these institutions partly built to train missionaries who would to out and Christianize the “natives.” Among the slave-created and salve-supported schools are Harvard and Princeton and Brown and William and Mary and University of Pennsylvania and Columbia and Rutgers and Dartmouth.
Extracting free labor is the fastest way to make a fortune. You rise on another man (or woman’s) shoulders, ignoring their sweat and tears. You labor them an inferior race that does not much feel pain. At one time US jail was associated with making license plates. Now inmates make almost everything in almost every US corporation. Big business receives Federal tax credits for employing inmates in excess of millions yearly. Business is not complaining
The United States Government is the primary guilty party in formulating a slave-based operation. The Federal corporation, UNICOR sets working conditions and wage standards for working inmates. Prisoners are said to work an 8 hour day for wages ranging from .23 cents/ hour to 1.15/hour. Due to the inflated cost in prison of making telephone calls and of purchasing items in the commissary, many prisoners leave jail in greater debt than when they arrived.
Here are some of the companies using slave labor: Whole Foods, WalMart, whose company policies clearly state “forced or prison labor is not tolerated” but get around this restriction by using a 3rd party for almost every item in the store . There are Farms with inmate labor who work under a blazing sun without adequate sunscreen, food and water. There is Victoria’s Secret where South Carolina inmates replace “Made in Honduras” tags with Made in the USA. There is AT&T which laid off thousands of telephone operators who were union members, to increase their profit. They were replaced by inmates who work in Call Centers for approximately $2 a day. There is BP which, after spilling 4 million barrels of oil in the Gulf Coast, used African-American inmates to clean it up instead of the local community of out-of-work fisherman. Other prisons using inmate labor include Microsoft, Nike, Honda, Pfizer, Saks 5th Avenue, JC Penny, Macy’s and Starbucks.
When inmates come before the parole board praying for release after 5 or 10 or 15 or… years of stifling imprisonment and imposed labor, reviewers pay little attention to their work time or to their good behavior. These appointed judges usually revert to the crime which brought that person to jail in the first place and on that basis answer no. The parole officer seems proud of his moral position. He lacks awareness of how prideful behavior becomes abusive.
Prison as a correction institute has been turned into a “tough on crime” torture zone by elected officials who think that repeating this slogan will get them elected by fearful voters. Those in prison have little or no time to spend with their children depending on how far the prison is from their home. When they meet, they are divided by a wall of glass and speak through a phone. Children are not embraced. Prisoners are deprived of almost all that makes life worth living.
Prisoners are beginning to rebel against their slave condition. They want reasonable wages and respectful treatment. Those who recently went on strike to call attention to their mistreatment were seriously beaten by guards, many thrown into solitary confinement including boys as young as 14, a sure way to make them grow insane. The prison’s intention is to break the spirit of its inmates and force them to turn the the wheel of outside profit.
How can slavery go on under our noses without our knowing it? We do not know it because the corporations which use inmate labor do not want us to know. Slave labor spoils their image. We might think twice about buying something made by unpaid or barely paid inmates. We might ask questions and learn that most people are in jail because they lack money for bail as do their relatives. They have not had their time in court, have not been convicted of any crime.
Many think that our prison system is itself a criminal event. It is clear that a functioning society needs no jail. Instead, it needs to create a place to help those who fail and fall between the cracks. Such people need psychological support and job training, not punishment. They need patient models who demonstrate how to live in society, something you cannot learn in a cage. They help inmates learn to get close to people, rather than feel helpless and enraged. This approach for those who fail in any way, would benefit us all.