Millions for Prisoners Urges America to Finally Forsake its Most Profitable Practice
By Amani Sawari | SawariMi
America’s greatest sin, slavery, is a practice that continues to plague our community into the 21st century. The rate of incarcerated individuals has steadily increased since slavery’s ‘abolition’, or rather, re-appropriation. How could we think that the United States would simply give up its most lucrative business? Slavery has been the country’s most profitable economic strategy since the first African were forced onto the Americas in 1619. Although the 13th amendment is said to have abolished slavery, it is actually the first place in the constitution where the word “slavery” is mentioned and therefore it is what wrote slavery into the constitution, read as follows:
“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.”
The wording of this amendment is not only contradictory but also heavily derogatory and offensive. Knowing that slavery as an institution was responsible for the violent dehumanization, degradation, abuse and death of an entire race of people; it’s reservation for ‘punishment’ is highly problematic and not only uncivil but outrageously vulgar! How could a government seemingly seeking to uplift a group of people who’ve been historically devalued and oppressed by slavery, abolish the practice with an exception? The 13th was not a true act of abolition at all. Abolition is defined as, “to formally put an end to; to do away with; to make void” there are no exceptions in abolition. Therefore, the fact that the 13th amendment has an exception clause completely invalidates its intent.
If you don’t see the problem with the reservation of slavery for punishment, then look at the lives of millions of families broken, the exploitation in sentencing, the corporate influenced social policies or even the public school-to-prison pipeline that targets children of color and those in poverty. There is a HUGE problem with dehumanization being profitable, and that problem bleeds into all aspects of our society. Although there is a distinct historic connection between the commoditization of Black and Brown Bodies in the prison industrial complex, this exploitation is not exclusive.
Recently the media has played a huge role in raising awareness about the human rights issues within our criminal justice system. From the narrative book based series Orange is the New Black, which follows the story of an upper-middle class white women imprisoned for a high profile drug crime she committed in her young adult life, to the documentary series Making a Murderer where we watched the lower class white male Steven Avery and his easily influenced nephew drown under the manipulative tactics of the prosecution. In both popular Netflix series, we saw how our primal justice system defies the ‘stereotype’ of this being just a ‘Black’ issue as whites whether lower class or upper class, educated or uneducated, male or female; regardless of when, how, or even if a crime was committed, fall prey to a system made, not to protect the innocent but to capture the accused. This system that preys on the accused does all it can to garnish evidence, collect witnesses and exploit laws to bend court proceedings in the favor of incarcerating as many people as possible regardless of their color.
We should all be afraid when a system has become so monstrous that eats up everyone: men, women and children; for even the pettiest of behaviors like trespassing or running away from home. It’s proven that the incarceration of a child is not a rehabilitative action, it only increases the likelihood of their future arrest. Despite this, in cities like Seattle we see plans for the construction of a $210 billion new youth jail. Along with this, public education has been de-funded by $74 million, this blatantly shows the city’s commitment to our nation’s trend of incarcerating rather than educating our youth, an obvious illustration of the public school-to-prison pipeline.
How can we stop this trend? We must call out those corporations who contribute to mass incarceration and reverse this cycle of dehumanization and enslavement for profit in this country. Knowing that the exception clause within the 13th amendment motivates corporations to incarcerate more people (and even groom children for incarceration) for profit we must point to the exception clause of the 13th amendment which legalizes slavery. In line with this, organizers across the nation on both sides of the wall have been planning the Millions for Prisoners March since 2015. The protest focuses on the removal of the 13th amendment’s exception as it is in violation of international law which states in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights Article 4: “no one should be held in slavery or servitude, slavery in all of its forms should be eliminated.” There are no exceptions: not as punishment for a crime or otherwise. This is because when slavery or servitude becomes an acceptable form in any fashion within a society it has social and political consequences. In America we’ve seen these consequences through private entities (such as banks, restaurants, clothing stores, call centers, gas stations, telephone networks, etc.) exploiting prison labor by paying prisoners reprehensibly low wages (11 cents/hour) or nothing at all while at the same time companies are overcharging prisoners for goods and services, a bag of potato chips or box of tampons shouldn’t cost a day’s work. In addition to these, private entities are being contracted by states to build and operate prisons and detention centers which directly motivates these private entities to keep these building full as an investment. This investment is protected by contracts that penalize the state (citizens/taxpayers) if prisons and detention centers are not at minimum (sometimes 80%) capacity. Minimum sentencing policies and truth-in-sentencing laws are examples of government actions to protect private interest in keeping prisons full. This is too close of a relationship between the government and business for any resident of this country to feel comfortable. The consequences of running the government as a profit seeking business can be seen in the racial disparities of the country’s prison population and sentencing. In business profits are calculated by focusing on a market, our criminal justice system’s market is black and bodies. This is why people of color are arrested, sentenced and incarcerated at an alarmingly disproportionate rate leaving 1/3 of Black men to expect being locked up in their lifetime.
With Fall’s release of the Ava Duverney’s 13TH documentary, the new presidency, and rapid waves of demonstrations happening across the nation many people are looking for a way to fix our ‘broken’ institutional systems that seem irreparable. We must realize that the criminal justice system is not broken, it’s operating just as it was intended. The 13th amendment was written with an exception clause that has been used to influence every aspect of our world, from the coffee we drink at Starbucks to the underwear we buy at Victoria’s Secret. The deals we see at Wal-Mart are sustained by our government’s interest in mass imprisonment and our system has succeeded in producing the world’s largest prison population, 1 in 25 Americans behind bars. That’s at least one person in every classroom. Because the prison-industrial complex is so grossly entangled in American culture we have to be active and intentional about our resistance to this system.
For those interested in participating in the march, local representatives are organized in several states throughout the country, find your local representative and connect with them most easily through the Millions for Prisoners Facebook Page. Along with this, in conjunction to the march happening in D.C., demonstrations in solidarity will be happening in urban centers throughout the country. In addition to participating in August 19th’s demonstrations, we must be conscious not to support companies that profit from prison labor. This includes but isn’t limited to Starbucks, Chevron, Walls-Fargo, Bank of America, Walmart, AutoZone, AT&T, Verizon, McDonalds, Wendy’s Whole Foods, Victoria’s Secret and BP. We know that there are more socially responsible alternatives to all of these places. Brands that choose socially oppressive techniques in their business practices like prison labor are likely to make other socially irresponsible decisions. For example, BP which used an incarcerated (almost entirely African American) workforce to clean up after spilling 4.2 million barrels of oil into the Gulf Coast after BO’s Deepwater Horizon wellhead exploded. An in relationship to water crises, Wells Fargo, a bank which has stocks in private prison companies and detention centers, is also responsible for funding the Dakota Access Pipeline. In Seattle, residents pulled their money out of the bank which led to the city’s divesting from the bank entirely. These are the same steps we should be taking to call an end to the human rights violations effecting the lives of our incarcerated brothers and sisters. As organizers, activists, advocates, prisoners, ex-prisoners their family and friends we wear Black wristbands on our left wrists in solidarity on both sides of the wall. It’s time that America choose a new strategy for economic development that doesn’t involve slavery.
Want to get involved?
The Millions for Prisoners March is led by men and women on the inside and organized by men and women on the outside. On the inside Prison Organizing Committees raise awareness among the incarcerated populations while Local Organizing Committees on the outside raise awareness in their region. If you or anyone you know would like to join either committee now is the time to contact March organizers. Stay connected to participants through the Seattle March Facebook page. In addition to Facebook, also find updates on the March’s official publication, the NoShackles Newsletter
Fill out the contact form below to get involved by joining Seattle’s Local Organizing Committee or registering to participate in the march.