Today is Juneteenth, the celebration of the end of slavery in the United States. It is a wonderful thing to celebrate, and I am happy that codified, legal, chattel slavery could finally end. My friends have parties and feasts to acknowledge the slaves in Texas, who were not told until two years after when Union soldiers came to the state, and their method of rejoicing at their liberty. It is great fun, though somber.
It also serves as a reminder that slavery has not ended. For-profit prisons make up one of the largest political lobbies in the country. They lobby for more expansive criminality, threaten communities if their walls are not filled, and profit from the labor of unpaid and unwilling workers. The argument is often, “if they didn’t want to go to jail, they shouldn’t have committed the crime.”
As a pale person, I have been stopped rarely. I had a van I was in tossed once (we were in a small town and dressed up for an LARP) while in possession of… well, a considerable amount of LSD and pot. They put both on the dash and replaced them in the glove box when they finished. The only thing they had a problem with was the foam weaponry and the make-up. Had we been persons of color or had one with us, I fear the outcome would have been much different. There is a disproportionate application of the law, and the swelling of the prison walls shows its result.
And in these prisons, every day costs more, the expectation is that prisoners financially cover the cost of their incarceration. Every hour of labor nets them pennies, but every product manufactured profits only the investors. But you get to buy a hat with a “Made in the USA” tag affixed.
In 1868 the governor of Georgia began using “convict leases”, renting out labor to private companies and individuals. The first one-hundred such convicts cost $2500 dollars for one year. Each were african-american. Sixteen died under the watchful eye of William A. Fort. By 1873 the state began leasing prisoners for up to twenty-three years, a deal which brought the state $500,000 over the course, and with an admonition to “treat the prisoners humanely” due to the abuses suffered at the hands of the lessee. Private prisons, those which profit from piling human labor into their walls, have never been for the rehabilitation of people.
Inmate population levels need to be high (90-95%) in order to cover costs and maintain profits. CoreCivic (Formerly, Corrections Corporation of America) contributes millions to politicians and action committees with the express purpose of generating more and stricter laws. It is one of the largest anti-marijuana lobbyists. While doing this, 40% of their facilities don’t provide any adult education programs and less than half provide drug addiction counselling. There is tremendous profit in locking people up, keeping them uneducated and addicted, and making them work their way out of prison.
What does this have to do with Juneteenth? Though we should absolutely celebrate the end of chattel slavery, we must also remember that it remains intact. At a wage between $0.17-$0.50 per hour, no amount of labor can be considered “willing”. While people outside of prison struggle on $7.25/hour and fight for a living wage, prisoners are worked hard for less than a dollar. There are two-plus-million people in prison in the United States and more than half are African-American and Latinx.
Please dance and feast and sing today, but tomorrow, get busy working to remove slavery from our system. Pay attention to where your representatives get their money. Pay attention to whom your politicians prop up. Pay attention.
Thank you, as ever, for being readers.