From Sat Sep 2 07:14:59 2000
Date: Fri, 1 Sep 2000 16:46:32 -0400
From: Art McGee <>
Subject: [BRC-NEWS] Creating Jobs and Expanding Opportunity
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Creating Jobs and Expanding Opportunity

ZNet Commentary by Sean Gonsalves <>, 17 August 2000

Ask anyone what was the major event of the post-Civil War period and they’ll tell you: the Emancipation Proclamation—the freeing of America’s black slaves.

Yes, a major event. But if you think God’s darker-hued children were really set free at that time, you’d be mistaken. And I’m not talking about the freedom to sit down and have a cup of coffee with a white guy sitting next to you at a lunch counter. With the exception of a few lonely classrooms, the history of the convict lease system is never mentioned.

The lease system, which was instituted in the South soon after the Civil War ended, permitted the leasing of convicts to private parties in exchange for payments made to the state for their labor. Renting prisoners to outsiders who has sole responsibility for regulating their hours, determining their working conditions, and maintaining their health quickly became a vicious, self-serving, and corrupt business, writes Africana studies scholar Milfred C. Fierce (see Fierce’s Slavery Revisited: Blacks and the Convict Lease System, 1865-1933).)

Of the four million or so slaves liberated by the 13th amendment, the overwhelming majority was relegated to the margins of the economy as sharecroppers, tenant-farmers or victims of the South’s notorious crop lien system.

Often facing starvation and usually illiterate (it was against the law to teach blacks to read under the infamous ’black codes’), blacks frequently found themselves at odds with prevailing laws or the agents and enforcers of law, Fierce writes. The last southern state to outlaw convict-leasing was North Carolina (1933).

My forebears were poor immigrants to this country and they made it. Why can ’t blacks do the same, is a popular refrain. Perhaps, if schools put more focus on the history part of black history month, then such silly and cynical sentiment would die-off naturally like a virus slain by a healthy immune system.

Convict-leasing has morphed into something else today—a multi-billion-dollar crime control industry. And you don’t have to be Karl Menninger or C. Vann Woodward to suspect something is fundamentally wrong with America’s crime and punishment system and that black folks disproportionately find themselves entrails in the belly of the beast.

A federal law prohibiting domestic commerce in prison- manufactured goods unless inmates are paid prevailing wage, allows politicians to feign concern for human rights with a straight face, railing about prison labor in Communist China. Conveniently forgotten is the fact that American free-market leaders do the same thing. The prison-labor law doesn’t apply to exports, (so) no California prison officials will end up in cells alongside their ’employees,’ observes Reese Erlich, an independent reporter who teaches journalism at Cal State Hayward and has been studying this stuff for years.

Erlich makes another interesting observation: Chinese and U.S. prison officials make the same arguments in defense of their prisn labor systems. We want prisoners to learn a working skill, Erlich quotes Mai Lin Hua, warden at China’s maximum security Shanghai Jail.

Fred Nichols, who heads up Oregon’s Prison Blues jean-making racket, says, We provide extra training for them. Here the inmates volunteer. They volunteer in California too, in one of the nation’s top prison industries—the California Prison Industry Authority, where inmates are forced to work at sewing machines to make blue work shirts at $.45 cents an hour. If they refuse to work, they have their canteen privileges suspended and they lose good time credit on their jail terms.

We’re talking for-profit operations here. From 1980 to 1994, the number of federal and state prisoners increased by 221 percent and the number of inmates employed in prison industries jumped 358 percent, according to the Correctional Industries Association. During that same period, prison industry sales shot up from $392 million to $1.31 billion, Erlich reports.

A study is being released this week called Poor Prescription: The Costs of Imprisoning Drug Offenders, put together by the Justice Policy Institute. The study found that the number of inmates in jail for drug offenses today (458,131) nearly exceeds the entire 1980 prison population (474,368).

The report’s major findings: From 1986 to 1996, the number of whites imprisoned for drug offenses has doubled, while the number of blacks imprisoned for drug offenses has increased five-fold. And that despite the fact that whites account for over 70 percent of all illicit drug use in America.

There is a statistically significant association between higher incarceration rates of drug offenders and greater, not less, drug use in the states examined, the study found. Also, nearly half of all drug offenders imprisoned in California last year were locked up for simple possession of drugs.

Say brother, if you can’t find a way into the booming economy, there’s a great jobs program in the prison industry.