The USA: Land of the Free and the Home of the Shackled

By Hawa Maiga

On October 7th 2016, African American female director Ava Duvernay released her new documentary “13th” on Netflix, which discusses the American Constitution’s 13th amendment and its ill-spoken caveat:

“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, or any place subject to their jurisdiction”.

In 100 riveting minutes, Duvernay is able to thoroughly explain the prison industrial complex in a beautiful and tactful way through the use of various voices.

The film illustrates the outcomes of President Abraham Lincoln’s 1863 Emancipation Proclamation that freed the slaves. Highlighting a notable increase in the incarceration and arrest rates of African Americans, the film suggests that once half of the country had lost their economic system through slave labour, they resorted to prison labour. Ever since, criminals and African Americans have been tightly linked in popular culture, a progression made through the use of multiple laws and political wars.

Another problem brought up in Duvernay’s documentary is the overrepresentation of African American males in incarceration statistics. The United States represents only 5% of the world’s population, yet represents 25% of prisoners. African American males represent 35% of the American prison population, while only being 6% of the US population. These facts are astonishing. Other upsetting data, such as the fact that 1 in 3 black males born today are expected to go to prison during their lifetime, and that, according to the Women’s Donor Network, 95% of elected prosecutors are white, have come to light and have caused unrest in the country. Indeed, police brutality has become a hot topic in the last few years and has led to riots reminiscent of the civil rights era. Much like the long hot summer of 1967, some media outlets have depicted these riots in a way that portrays protesters as criminals, looters and “thugs”. Similar terms were once used to describe Civil Rights activists Rosa Parks, Assata Shakur, Angela Davis, Fred Hampton, and Martin Luther King.

The film also points out Nixon’s “War on Crime”, an effort aimed at suppressing the Anti-War, Black Power, Women and Gay liberation movements. Nixon also initiated a “War on Drugs” that became part of Reagan’s “National Crusade”. Many would argue that The War on Drugs treated a health problem as a crime, and applied mandatory sentencing on those who were specifically addicted to crack cocaine, thus targeting minority communities. In fact, President Nixon’s aide, John Ehrlichman, admitted that his War on Drugs “had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people” and since they “couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin. And then criminalizing both heavily, [they] could disrupt those communities” and “could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news”. Even former Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich believes that the Reagan administration “should have treated crack and cocaine as the same thing” as “it was an enormous burden on the black community”.

However, not all blame can be placed on Republican leaders, as some of the most crucial laws were passed under Democratic president Bill Clinton. His “tough on crime” initiatives included imposing mandatory minimums on judges, a three strikes law that would have criminals serve life in prison after three felonies, and his truth in sentencing law, designed to get rid of parole. His 1994 Federal Crime Bill has received a great deal of press this year during his wife Hillary Clinton’s campaign. While Bill Clinton claimed this bill would “make communities safer”, one must question which communities he was referring to, since theses initiatives lead to prison expansions, an increase in funding to build new prisons, mass incarceration and the militarization of the prison system. Although the Clintons have apologized and have recognized the damaging outcomes of their decisions, more must be done, especially regarding the privatisation of prisons in the United States.

During the Democratic primary season earlier this year, Vermont Senator and former Democratic presidential nominee Bernie Sanders brought up the important ethical issues of private prisons, saying: “It is wrong to profit from the imprisonment of human beings and the suffering of their families and friends”. As revealed in the film, corporations profit from prisoners through their phone calls, meals, healthcare, and their free labour. Under the 13th amendment, prisoners can work for little to no pay for corporations. According to the Global Research, common brands such as Nordstrom’s, Microsoft, Revlon, Macy’s, IBM, Target, and many more use prison labour to create their products. This is where we, as consumers, can make a change by signing petitions and by voting with our wallets. When it came to light that Victoria’s Secret and JCPenney used prison labour to make their products, there was a public uproar that led to the corporations switching manufacturers.

It is disheartening to see how a justice system has lost its focus on rehabilitation, and continues to punish felons once out of jail. As the movie mentions, ex-convicts can be limited in job applications, student loans, business licenses, food stamps, private rentals for housing, life insurances and even lose their right to vote. While Reverend Martin Luther King fought hard for the Voting Rights Act of 1965, it is alarming that, according to the Equal Justice Initiative, 34% of black males in Alabama, where King held the famous Selma to Montgomery march, have lost their right to vote. If most people admit that the prison industrial complex is a problem, and agree that slavery is a horrific part of our history, how is it possible to turn a blind eye and tolerate these aforementioned realities?

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