The United States called by some the land of the free and the home of the brave, leads the world in incarceration, with over 2 million people behind bars; that is a 500 percent increase over the past 40 years. Moreover, the United States has just five percent of the world population, yet holds approximately 25 percent of its prisoners. The Sentencing Reform and Correction Act S.2123; the Sentencing Reform Act H.R.3713; and the Corrections and Recidivism Reduction Act H.R.759 take a first step to end mass incarceration at the federal level. But, how did we get here? If history is any guide, it will show that mass incarceration is no mistake or policy mishap, but a system evolved from America’s greatest sin: slavery.
1619 marks the year when Africans were brought to the British Colonies to the banks of Jamestown, Virginia as the legal status of servant. However, as plantation systems expanded, specifically tobacco and cotton, the demand for forced labor and land increased, and America descended into slavery. Slavery deprived the enslaved person of legal rights and granted the slave owner complete power over black men, women, and children; legally recognized as property. During these years of terrorism, millions of slaves in America were traumatized, humiliated, beaten, devastated, and killed. Husbands and wives, parents and children could not protect themselves from being sold away from each other. In addition, during the four centuries of slavery, race and white supremacy were the foundation. As Michelle Alexander writes in The New Jim Crow, “The notion of white supremacy rationalized the enslavement of Africans, even as whites endeavored to form a new nation based on the ideals of equality, liberty, and justice for all…Under the terms of our country’s founding, slaves were defined as three-fifths of a man, not a real, whole human being.”
Slavery was abolished in 1865 with the end of the Civil war and passing of the 13th amendment. The racial caste in the United States should have ended as well. However, the idea of race as a marker of value continued. After reconstruction, majority of whites during this time believed newly freed African Americans were too lazy to work, which surged legislators to pass the black codes. This was essentially a system of white control. These codes varied from state to state, but were rooted from slavery, and they foreshadowed Jim Crow laws to come. For example, employment was required for all freedman; violators faced vagrancy charges, they were were not taught to read or write, and public facilities were segregated. Within Reconstruction and Its Benefits, W.E.B. Du Bois says, “The codes spoke for themselves… No opened minded student can read them without being convinced they meant nothing more nor less than slavery.” Clearly, the black codes intentions were to treat and see African-Americans as property, not persons. Furthermore, the black codes were intended to secure a steady supply of cheap labor, and continued to assume the inferiority of the freed slaves.
Overtime, the black codes were overturned, and federal legislation protecting newly freed slaves was passed during the Reconstruction Era. These impressive achievements included the Thirteenth Amendment, abolishing slavery; the Fourteenth Amendment, prohibiting states from denying citizens due process and equal protection of the laws; and the Fifteenth Amendment, providing that the right to vote should not be denied on the account of race. With the passage of these legislations and the protection of federal troops, black advancement started to take place. African Americans began to vote in large numbers, gain political power, and even seize control of their own destinies, by growing towards greater social and economic equality. However, as Du Bois writes, “The slave went free; stood a brief moment in the sun; then moved back again towards slavery.” The newly freed slaves had their brief moment in the sun, but moved back towards the systems of control, when rapid and severe backlash of their progress occurred. White southerners swore to “redeem” the south and they wanted what John Hope Franklin and Alfred A. Moss wrote in From Slavery to Freedom: A History of African Americans, the “abolition of the Freedman’s Bureau and all political instrumentalities designed to secure Negro supremacy.” With the help of the Ku Klux Klan and their violent campaign of terrorism, conservatives kept their promise of redeeming the south, federal troops retreated, and African-Americans once again found themselves, stuck, in the abyss of white supremacy.
Again, history seemed to be repeating itself and vagrancy laws where “mischief” and “insulting gestures” were crimes enforced disproportionately against blacks. Aggressive enforcement of these “criminal offenses” birthed convict leasing, which in turn helped rebuild the south, and supplied labor for farming, rail road, mining, and logging. During convict leasing, prisoners were contracted under the legal status of laborers and were sold to the highest private bidder. Slavery by Another Name author Douglas Blackmon points out that African Americans were arrested by the thousands during this period, described that African-Americans were tackled with court cost and fines, and they had no means to pay off their debts, so they were sold into forced labor. Most importantly, convicts had no concrete legal rights. They were understood to be slaves. The Thirteenth amendment did abolished slavery, but it allowed an exception: slavery remained appropriate as punishment for a crime. During convict leasing, incarceration grew ten times faster than the general population, and “prisoners became younger and blacker, and the length of their sentences soared”, says David Oshinsky author of Worse Than Slavery.
Although convict leasing ended, Michelle Alexander argues, “The criminal justice system was strategically employed to force African-Americans back into a system of extreme repression and control, a tactic that would continue to prove successful for generations to come.” During this time as well Jim Crow was thriving and the idea of race inferiority remained. For another 100 years black people were segregated, denied the right to vote, and stripped of their dignity. Nevertheless, The Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and ’60s helped to end legal racial segregation, but racial bias persevered. Today a dark cloud of guilt is disproportionately assigned to many people of color who are arrested, convicted of crimes, and sent to prison. Black men between the ages of 18 to 35, their prime years to learn and grow, have a one and three chance of going to prison in their lifetime. Imagine, you yourself are taken away from your community for a low-level nonviolent offense, disenfranchised, and then asked in some way to be a contributor to society. It is tough.
Let’s remember that our work to undo the threads of slavery and act to address racism starts with the work of ending these institutional systems of control. I lead with Malcolm’s words, “any person who claims to have a deep feeling for other human beings should think a long, long time before he votes to have other men kept behind bars– caged.” I agree! Reversing this system is hard and complicated. Nonetheless, the work must be done and it starts with you advocating for more justice in our justice system. These bills are ready for leadership to bring them to the floor, but they need to hear from you.