Tuesday, August 27, 2013

The 21st Century Slave

jailI suppose everyone has an opinion on prisons and incarceration in America. Some view it as the New Jim Crow and of course there are others who see nothing wrong with the system at all. There are laws in New York City that clearly racial profile - “Stop and Frisk” – and the “Stand your Ground” laws are discriminatory which take us back to a time when the slave catcher had ultimate authority to take and maintain ones freedom.

The system of over incarcerating people who have spent years in tombs called prisons and in many cases for crimes they did not commit. Lest not forget the sad irony of people being put to death who fall into this category or more shameful executions of the mentally disabled and life sentences for minors. Moreover, there is the fact that once released the convicts voting rights are taken away forever - in most cases.

This could easily be compared to the slave catcher and the system of slavery; particularly, when little is being paid to those working during their time. There is a long history of lynching’s, chain gangs, and the free labor derived from this system, which has more people in prison than anywhere else in the world. It was not until recently that the disproportionate sentencing of powder cocaine and crack have been modified and shown to be unfair.  

A few years ago a Vermont man sued the state under the 13th Amendment for the labor he was forced to perform while awaiting trial. A one-time grad student was arrested for allegedly firing a gun in his home threatening to kill his family and an official at the university. In the lawsuit this man alleges that the state violated his rights under the 13th Amendment -- which abolished slavery and involuntary servitude after the Civil War -- when he was forced to work in the laundry for minimal pay as an inmate.

In his $11-million lawsuit pro se, the grad student said he was forced to work three days a week for six weeks washing other inmates' laundry. He was paid a wage of 25 cents per hour and developed a bacterial infection on his neck because he was not provided sanitation in the laundry room. He says, prison officials threatened to put him "in the hole," where inmates are shackled and locked up for 23 hours per day in solitary confinement, if he refused to work.

It is important to note that the man was released and all charges against him were dropped. A panel of judges from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit overruled the lower court's dismissal of the case, arguing that inmate did not have to prove that his experience was akin to those of African slaves before abolition.
"Contrary to the district court's conclusion, it is well-settled that the term 'involuntary servitude' is not limited to chattel slavery-like conditions," Appellate Judge Barrington Parker wrote in the court's opinion. "The amendment was intended to prohibit all forms of involuntary labor, not solely to abolish chattel slavery."

Supreme Court precedent has established that the constitutional rights of pretrial detainees are distinct from those of convicted inmates, because criminal convictions can justify certain punishments, Judge Parker argued. "If you haven't been convicted at all, your pretrial detention is not a form of punishment," said Columbia Law School professor Jamal Greene. "The degree to which his liberty can be restricted is directly tied to the needs that required him to be detained. So if he was detained only to secure himself for trial, he can't be detained for punishment."

While all inmates may be expected to clean up their cells or wipe down tables in the mess hall, Greene said, the poorly paid, unsafe work the inmate alleged he was forced to do may have crossed a legal boundary. Let me say clearly that it is not my position that laws and punishment are not necessary. What is disparaging is that it disproportionately affects the minority population of the citizenry.

This is just one case from a few years ago but the overcrowding, twenty-five to life, draconian sentences imposed for minor drug offenses, and three-strike laws are akin to chattel slavery. This system has run amuck mainly because of privatization and it’s time to end the “War on Drugs” and find a better solution to the problem instead of throwing away the key.

Did you know the clothing worn by our soldiers are made by the cheap labor of the incarcerated? In closing, let me suggest that you read Michelle Alexander’s book “The New Jim Crow”. And that’s my Thought Provoking Perspective…

No comments: