Monday, April 19, 2010

The things I don't know

Sometimes when I learn something that startles me and helps to explain a lot of the way things work, I'm unsure of how important it is to share the discovery, because I have no idea if it's just me being ignorant or if it's genuinely something most people don't know.

For example, about six months ago when I read Assata, the autobiography of Assata Shakur and one of the best books I've ever read, I was startled to learn that the 13th Amendment to the Constitution explicitly allows slavery in one case:
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.
Which made a lot of things make sense that hadn't before. Or more accurately, fully explained things that I hadn't realized didn't make sense. Like, before I learned about that, I thought the existence of private prisons was the entire justification for all the increased incarceration of the past few decades, despite the fact that private prisons actually account for only a small percentage of the totality of the American prison landscape, and despite the fact that I didn't have a clear concept of how incarceration led to profit. I just hadn't thought it through.

Now I know. Prisoners are slave laborers. Not metaphorically, literally.

(An aside: right now I'm finding it useful to think of the 13th Amendment not as abolishing slavery so much as changing it from a private system to a government one. The mixed public-private incarceration system that we're seeing now is essentially a symptom of the accelerating melding of the public and the private.)

And a related thing I just learned about in Are Prisons Obsolete? is the "convict lease" program, instituted in the wake of the 13th Amendment, in which, as the name of the program indicates, convicts could be leased for labor. The especially neat thing about this is that after the end of slavery, the Black prison population in formerly slave areas shot up dramatically. After all, imprisonment is the punishment of the individual by taking away his or her rights; under slavery, Black people had no rights, so their punishment took other forms. Now that Black people at least theoretically had rights, they could be taken away--and not only that, but the lawmakers set about making all kinds of things illegal specifically so that Black people could be "duly convicted" of them.

So you've got these suddenly primarily Black prisoners available for "lease." You purchase the right to use them for a month for some fee. As Angela Davis points out, this often led to worse treatment than under slavery, because when you own a slave you have an investment in them, and don't want to work them to death because then you have to go buy another one. With leasing, there's no reason not to work them to death, because you can just go lease another one, which you would have done anyway.

According to wikipedia, the "system was slowly phased out in the early 20th century, with Alabama being the last state to outlaw the practice in 1928." Which is awfully recent for something so completely horrific, so intensely brutal, to have happened and been entirely forgotten.

And of course there is still a vast, and exponentially increasing, sea of Black (and other shade) bodies in prison being used for profit to this day.


Jack Crow said...

Can't wait until organ sales are legalized, what with prisoners not fully being in legal possession of their bodies...

Ethan said...

Ew, I don't want some icky black liver in my beautiful white body!

Richard said...

"Sometimes when I learn something that startles me and helps to explain a lot of the way things work, I'm unsure of how important it is to share the discovery, because I have no idea if it's just me being ignorant or if it's genuinely something most people don't know."

I know what you mean here. I spend far too much time worrying about whether I should bother blogging something like this. Everybody already knows, right? (Or least that everybody I imagine to be my audience, whatever that means.)

As for the rest of the post, wow, I have to admit I'd never thought about it in those terms, though I'm sure I knew full well the text of the 13th Amendment. Good post.

Ethan said...

Thanks, Richard. I always try to keep in mind that what is obvious to me is not necessarily going to be obvious to someone else, and that what is obvious to someone else is not necessarily going to be obvious to me, both while writing and while reading others; I'm not frequently successful at either, unfortunately. Another thing I try and fail to remember is that if something's important, it's worth saying regardless of whether it's news or not.

Incidentally, I know you have a lot of reading on your plate these days, but if you have the chance and you haven't read it, I can't recommend Assata highly enough. It's one of the very few genuinely inspiring books I've ever read, and also full of useful pointings-out of a wide variety of things like the language and legacy of the 13th Amendment.

Richard said...

And it's worth saying to yourself, too. Who's to say you'll remember the insight if you don't write about it?

Thanks for the book recommendation. I looks like a good one.