© Josh Sager – June 2015
Last week, several states—including South Carolina, Virginia and Alabama—removed the Confederate flag from their public buildings and are signaling their intentions to abandon the symbol for all state uses (ex. license plates). This is very encouraging and definitely a step by southern states towards distancing themselves from their racist histories.
Unfortunately, the removal of the Confederate flag is a largely rhetorical gesture, given the fact that many of the same evils that the Confederacy stood for are alive and well—one of these is the institution of slavery.
Yes, slavery still exists in the United States today. While it isn’t as pervasive or brutal as it was in the past, slavery has survived the decades since its supposed abolition by moving into the prison population. In many states, inmates are forced to work at little or no pay and are horribly punished if they refuse or act up.
For example, three inmates in the Alabama prison system—James Pleasant, Melvin Ray, and Robert Council—are now facing punitive solitary confinement for the rest of their lives as punishment for the terrible offense of advocating for better working conditions and payment for prison laborers. They were non-violent labor leaders and merely advocated for work stoppages in prison labor if inmates weren’t paid and given basic worker protections.
Punitive solitary confinement in a cramped cell with poor ventilation and extreme heat is one of the punishments that was used in the old south to make an example of any slave to try to escape the plantation. It was effective then, and it is almost certainly still effective today—how many prisoners do you think are going to be willing to stand up for their rights now that they know the consequences?
When the 13th Amendment was passed, it contained a loophole that allowed individuals who were convicted of crimes to be held as slaves. Here is the relevant text from section 1 of the Amendment:
“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.
At the time, this loophole made it possible for plantations, mining companies and other industries to “rent” prisoners for their labor from the state and gave racist southern states financial incentives to create “black codes” to criminalize newly freed slaves so that they could be leased to for-profit industry. Over the years, this system of profitized incarceration shifted to involve prison-industries (ex. license plates), expanded across race lines, and fused with the drug war.
No prison exemplifies this more than Louisiana’s Angola Penitentiary—the largest maximum security prison in the USA. Angola started out as a slave plantation and got its name due to the fact that most of the slaves there were from Angola, Africa. After the civil war, it was converted into a prison that primarily housed incarcerated African Americans who were rented out as disposable prison labor. Currently, little has changed, as Angola is still 78% African American and operates a variety of prison labor programs that generate millions in revenue/savings a year.
Angola – The Plantation
Angola – Convict Leasing Era
Angola – The Prison
For more information on this process, watch PBS’s Slavery by Another Name documentary.
Many ex-Confederate states rely heavily on inmate labor for a variety of public works and revenue-generating functions. These types of labor split loosely into three categories:
- Prisoners are forced to work inside of the prison, cleaning, cooking, serving food, and performing other tasks that directly reduce institutional costs.
- Prisoners are forced to work for road crews and on public works projects (ex. trash cleanup, construction, road work, etc.), providing services that otherwise would be done by paid (often union) employees.
- Prisoners are forced to participate in inmate-labor programs that produce goods to be sold to state agencies (ex. office furniture for state universities) and sometimes on the market.
While some prisons claim that their labor programs are “optional,” the fact is that prisoners who refuse face being sent to solitary, denied programs (ex. drug treatment, education, etc.), or often being beaten by guards.
Removing the Confederate flag from state institutions is great, but it is far more important to uproot the institution of slavery that existed under that flag. Uncompensated prison labor and racialized policing are the direct continuation of the Confederacy’s desire to own and exploit certain segments of the American population.
Prison labor allows states to incarcerate huge numbers of people without having to pay all of the associated costs. Prisoners defray a portion of their housing costs by working for the prison and state agencies gain access to cheap labor that lets them reduce their budgets (ex. using inmates to clean roads rather than hiring paid employees).
By focusing upon the visible legacy of the Confederate flag, we risk losing sight on what actually makes the symbol so toxic. Yes, that flag represents a hatred for the union of our nation and a desire to commit treason against the United States, but it’s most reprehensible aspect is its association with individuals who claimed the right to hold others as property. We must look past the visible symbol of this history and attack the real-life continuation of its ideology.