The business of prisons and the laws that make sure they exist
There are more people behind bars in the United States, than any other country in the world.
by Cheryldean Peters
Beginning in the early 1600s, my ancestors were legally forced into slavery and robbed of their freedom. They were involuntarily exploited, beaten and forced to work as servants, which primarily helped generate income for America’s economy. Their servitude drastically enhanced local and colonial economics while creating generational wealth for their oppressors.
Africans were inhumanely bought and sold like cargo. They were held captive and prohibited from reading and writing, relying on their slave owners for food and resources.
Following the onset of the Civil War, the Thirteenth Amendment was passed; an official authorization to formally abolish slavery and involuntary servitude in 1865, except as a punishment if you were convicted of a crime. The Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments, both known as the Reconstruction Amendment, accompanied the agreement and granted slaves “citizenship” – apart of livelihood that slavery infringed on. These amendments were an attempt to set a narrative of revolution; that the racial divide in America had declined, and that former slaves would be given equal opportunities in society with employment, residency and voting rights.
Simultaneously, however several laws were instituted to ensure that segregation and the byproducts of slavery remained. “The Black Code” restricted African American freedoms and forced them to work for very low wages while the Jim Crow Law segregated African Americans from whites. Currently, our school and prison systems aren’t that different.
The prison industrial complex highlights the intersections of modern-day slavery and anti-Blackness. Despite claims that America is the land of liberty, the prison industry seeks to disproportionately punish, deprive and dismiss Black lives through intentional mass incarceration. As Blacks in state prisons grew faster than whites, the racial disparity was recognized as institutional racism across policies and practices, prejudices in decision-making and lack of professional support provided in Black communities.
This structure operates as a direct hindrance on Black stability, affluence, collaboration and accessible health care, because not only does mass incarceration affect the individuals that are imprisoned, but also their families and communities. In addition, the United States has facilitated a lot of money on the expansion of prisons. As private business owners continue to build these infrastructures, provide goods, services and judicial employment to sustain revenue, just a simple phone call can cost up to one dollar per minute, and that’s in accordance to the amount prisoners make every hour of labor, which also generates profit for corporations that are funding the phone networks.
The prison industry is a lucrative business. One of the leading sources of the criminal justice system is the regularity in which mass incarceration is funded and normalized. The expansion of prisons demands the influx of incarcerated Black bodies, just as slave owners profited from owning slaves. There are more people behind bars in the United States, than any other country in the world.
The War on Drugs was a racial conspiracy organized in the early 1970s to the late 1980s, by Richard Nixon drawn out by Ronald Reagan. The launch of illegal drugs within impoverished Black communities, particularly crack cocaine lead to systematically criminalize Black folks for nonviolent drug offenses (the Rockefeller Drug Laws).
In 1986, Congress passed the Anti-Drug Abuse Act which implemented mandatory minimum prison sentences for drug offenses – if one were caught with 5 grams of crack cocaine, they were sentenced to at least five years imprisonment and if caught with 5000 grams of powder cocaine, along with 50 grams of crack then one was sentenced to 10 years imprisonment.
The American government intentionally furthers mass incarceration amongst individuals from under-resourced and hyper-policed communities, offering harsh penalties instead of actually fighting the epidemic of drugs, like they claim.
As government officials continue to identify Black folks as “super-predators”, dangerous and violent criminals, they are sold to big corporations that invest in prison labor for extremely low wages. Instead of divesting in prisons, the government and private companies continue to profit in a system that oppresses us.
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Un-ironically, the investors who expect free labor from incarcerated inmates, are opposed to providing
them with sustainable employment and wages once they get outside.
In truth, mass incarceration mocks slave plantations. Black folks are waking up in cells with inhumane conditions, while every second of their day is dictated by prison guards. They are locked away in solitary confinement for days, or even months – deliberately designed for isolation. Prisoners are fighting fires all over the nation without receiving adequate care and conditions and this system is taking away lives because America is excited by lies of violent Black pathologies.
Mass incarceration is an intentional (and unfortunately successful) attempt at maintaining power. The businesses, education, resources, rights and lands that fuel this are in the hands of white supremacists. They are also a direct result of racism and an attempt to ensure that Black folks would “transition” out of slavery without a dime.
Until we create alternative conditions, the prison industrial complex will continue to flourish for those who designed it. Black folks do not impose a threat to society, we are its backbone. Without us, this nation would crumble.
Cheryldean Peters is a freelance writer from Toronto, who writes poetry, short stories, personal essays and editorials. She’s passionate about storytelling, self-care and spends most of her time striving to exude love. She enjoys reading about black history, and discussing the importance of individual growth.