• Dylan Springer

Slavery in America Today

Updated: Apr 5, 2019

A riverboat transports convicts to Angola prison, c. 1860.

U.S. Presidential candidate and former California attorney general Kamala Harris has been criticized in recent months after it was revealed that lawyers under her charge argued against the release of nonviolent offenders ‘because it would deplete [the state’s] pool for prison labor’.* Harris, for her part, responded immediately that she was unaware of this until it was reported in the media. For my part, I am less interested what Harris knew or didn’t know and more concerned with the real story: that slavery was never abolished by the United States and is in fact alive and well today.

Here is the text of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, which supposedly abolished the practice of slavery (emphasis mine):

‘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’. This loophole, which explicitly allows the practice of slavery in cases where someone has been convicted of a crime, has been exploited by the U.S. since it was passed.

Atlantic magazine carried out a lengthy expose of legalised slavery at the Angola prison in Louisiana. They described an atmosphere eerily reminiscent of an antebellum slave plantation: ‘Crops stretch to the horizon. Black bodies pepper the landscape, hunched over as they work the fields. Officers on horseback, armed, oversee the workers… The imagery haunts, and the stench of slavery and racial oppression lingers…’** The ‘workers’ are either uncompensated for paid a token two cents per day. If they refuse to work, they are punished or tortured with ‘the hole’ (solitary confinement).

The history is clear. Once most forms of slavery were banned, Southern states quickly took advantage of the loophole and erected massive labour camps which they quickly filled with the newly-freed black population. This remains largely unchanged to the present today. Over two million people languish in American prisons, many of which are run for profit by private corporations. The vast majority of those prisoners are black or brown. You can in many cases draw a direct line from the current state of ‘criminal justice’ in the U.S. to the slave plantations of the antebellum south.

Of course, we are not the only nation to practice slavery under the aegis of ‘justice’. The Soviet Union’s massive ‘archipelago’ of slave labour camps, or ‘gulags’, for example, provided the USSR which a cheap and reliable labour pool, performing the same function as do the modern prisons of the State of California and elsewhere in the U.S. today.

The prisoners of a Soviet gulag, c. 1937.

Constitutional amendments are notoriously difficult to overturn, and in today’s deeply polarized political environment even an amendment so uncontroversial as to ban slavery completely is unlikely to pass. Even if it did, state governments and private prison operators could still simply ‘compensate’ their ‘workers’ with a couple pennies per day and, arguably, be in compliance with the law. However, there is some hope that the next presidential administration will make a larger reform of the criminal justice system as a whole a priority: by releasing hundreds of thousands of nonviolent offenders, abolishing private prisons, and so on it would be possible to effectively (if not legally) end this cruel practice in the next few years.

Until then, the poor devils at Angola stoop in the heat, tending the State of Louisiana’s crops to avoid a night in the hole...

*Vox: https://www.vox.com/future-perfect/2019/1/23/18184192/kamala-harris-president-campaign-criminal-justice-record

**The Atlantic: https://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2015/09/prison-labor-in-america/406177/

At the time of writing, Dylan Springer is a second year student at the University of St Andrews studying Modern History. He is particularly interested in modern European history and politics and U.S. foreign policy.