From email@example.com Sat Sep 2 07:14:59 2000
Date: Fri, 1 Sep 2000 16:46:32 -0400
From: Art McGee <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Subject: [BRC-NEWS] Creating Jobs and Expanding Opportunity
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
Slavery Revisited: Blacks and the Convict Lease
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
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
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
We want prisoners to learn a working skill, Erlich
quotes Mai Lin Hua, warden at China’s maximum security Shanghai
Fred Nichols, who heads up Oregon’s
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
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
economy, there’s a great jobs program in the prison