Most children in America are taught that racial equality began in the United States with the abolition of slavery through the passage of the 13th Amendment 150 years ago. What children are not taught is that there is an exception to that freedom, and the fact that America imprisons more of its population than any other country in the world makes it a very relevant one.
The 13th Amendment reads, “involuntary servitude and slavery is abolished EXCEPT for those duly convicted of a crime.” This exception means that prisoners can be forced into slave labor, working for free or for pennies an hour. During Reconstruction all the way to the present day, the criminal justice system has been used to re-enslave entire segments of the population.
The one statistic that drives home just how much slavery is not a thing of the past is the fact that there are currently more Black men under the control of the American criminal justice system than what were enslaved in 1850. The number of Americans in bondage to the United States criminal justice system is unprecedented in human history. With so many citizens caught in the jaws of this life sucking force, the new Jim Crow of mass incarceration has managed to combine the horrors of slavery and apartheid and bring them to life in the nightmare that has become justice in America.
As state and federal governments hack away at the right to vote, fracture families through incarceration, turn schools into pipelines to feed the prison system, and turn entire communities into open air prisons of people under house arrest, many are being forced to consider the fact that millions of Americans are not truly free.
The fact that the enslavement and mistreatment of millions of American citizens is sanctified by the U.S. Constitution means that the effort needed to change America’s prison policy and permanently and completely outlaw slavery must begin there. Civil rights activists must be willing to act on human rights issues, understanding that the criminal justice system is not meant for crime prevention and control but rather functions as a system of racial and social control.
As Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration In The Age of Colorblindness, states, “While we were struggling to get handfuls of kids into elite colleges and universities, literally millions of people, overwhelmingly poor people and people of color, were being rounded up, locked in cages, and then upon their release, stripped of the very rights won in the civil rights movement, like the right to vote, the right to serve on juries, the right be free.”