Capitalism, slavery and prison labor have been bedfellows since the 1800s. African American male labor was exploited then, and this exploitative coupling continues into this century. In 1860, there were 1,981,385 black male slaves in the Unites States—a figure computed from the Historical Demographics, Economic, and Social Data: U.S., 1790-1970, ICPSR. Once these slaves were manumitted and no longer a free workforce, Douglas A. Blackmon describes how their labor was recaptured in his book Slavery By Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II. Black male labor was recaptured, according to Blackmon, by charging Negroes with crimes such as vagrancy and other non-consequential acts, and this need for cheap labor paralleled an increased enforcement of these frivolous laws—i.e., harvesting time. As a result of this system, Blackmon describes this indentured servitude (debt slavery) as forced labor. As prison labor became a more necessary part of the capitalist system during Reconstruction, as a result of the devastation brought on by the Civil War, landowners exploited this peonage system and needed to build new prisons to house these former slaves and lease them to labor-hungry entrepreneurs.
These labor-hungry entrepreneurs decided to expand on this idea of convict leasing in the 1800s and created the first private prisons. States such as California, Louisiana, Oklahoma, and Texas had privately operated prisons between 1850 and 1950. The industry of contracting out prison labor was extremely profitable up until 1950, but things became unglued with the discovery of rampant abuse in these private prisons. Private prisons reappeared in the 1980s as a result of the “war on drugs,” and the concomitant laws associated with this war such as California’s notorious three-strikes-and-you-are-out laws. These campaigns such as the “war on drugs” and “get tough on crime” have been a dismal failure and have afflicted non-violent African American offenders, especially males, with a permanent handicap—a lifetime of limited opportunities.
The collateral consequences of a felony conviction also play a role in the burgeoning African American male unemployment rate. African American male unemployment, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, is 15.6%, which economists assert is a Depression-era level number. The U.S. economy, it has been widely reported, has not added jobs since December of 2007 and has shed 7.2 million jobs overall since then, according to reports. Even worse, it is accepted that many jobs will not return for several years. Of course, African American males will be the most affected by the structural and racial flaws in the economy.
In my book, Merchandizing Prisoners: Who Really Pays for Prison Privatization?, I show how the United States is returning to systems of prison labor exploitation. Over 2 million U.S. citizens are now incarcerated in the U.S., and half of them are African American males. This return to slavery has been facilitated by private prison corporations that lease factories in prisons and then lease the prisoners they house for the state out to these factories to perform work for companies such as Dell, Victoria’s Secret, and other multinational corporations and Fortune 500 companies. According to Yahoo Finance, Corrections Corporation of America has a 2.69 billion market cap.
There is a phenomenon eerily similar to what Blackmon describes regarding the nominal fees Black men were forced to pay to forestall forced labor. This is now happening to the formerly incarcerated who come out of prisons with crushing debt. These economic sanctions come in the form of probation fees, jail fees, special assessments, fines, and restitution. These fees are assessed on money deposited for prisoners by their family members. When ex-prisoners cannot pay these fees, they are returned to prison on a technical violation and are then forced into labor again.
Instead of states spending more money on corrections over education and building more prisons, they should embrace this idea of justice reinvestment to attack disproportionate minority contact with the criminal justice system, outsourcing and African American unemployment. Justice reinvestment strategies, according to Susan Tucker and Eric Cadora, contend that the billions of dollars spent on corrections should be redirected to build “human resources, physical infrastructure such as schools in those neighborhoods devastated by high levels of incarceration like the million dollar blocks in Brooklyn, NY.” A million dollars a year, according to Tucker and Cadora, is being spent to incarcerate people from one block in Brooklyn.
Redirecting money to create jobs in these high incarceration communities would go a long way towards improving education in these communities, improving employments prospects, and de-commodifying Black men so that their labor is not stolen by capitalists looking to exploit the captive labor the prisons provide them. Finally, states should follow New Jersey’s state legislature’s example of exploring laws which remove barriers that affect successful reintegration back into society by the formerly incarcerated, such as not being able to stay in public housing or receive welfare benefits, not being able to secure occupational licenses, and asking the question, “Have you ever been convicted of a felony?”
Dr. Byron E. Price is a professor of political science at Texas Southern University and is the author of Merchandising Prisoners: Who Really Pays for Prison Privatization.