“Man is born free, but everywhere he is in chains”. – Jean-Jacques Rousseau.
We often like to believe that the issue of slavery is a relic in the modern world. Some bygone injustice that we can relegate to the annals of history.
Indeed, in the modern world, on average at least, personal liberty has never been greater. Democracies are the most common form of government; consumer rights are at an all-time high and the advent of the internet and globalization makes the exposure of gross injustice easier than it has ever been.
Yet sadly, Rousseau’s quote has never been more relevant. Despite slavery being universally outlawed across the globe, the 2016 Global Slavery Index estimates that there were around 45.8 million people living in slavery. A higher figure than at any other point in human history. This index lists the millions of unfortunate men and women that are slaves in a literal sense, being exploited for forced labour. But in the modern world, there are also millions of invisible slaves. These slaves do not meet the traditional definition of slavery but nevertheless suffer the same exploitation.
One horrendous example of this exists right under the nose of the American people: the exploitation of American prisoners.
It is hard to think of prisoners as victims. Surely, they don’t deserve the same rights as honest, law-abiding citizens? Surely, they forfeited these rights when they decided to break the law? Well as with anything in life, the reality of the situation is not this clear-cut due to several factors.
Putting factors such as the possibility of many prisoners being innocent and the debate between whether rehabilitation or punishment is more effective to one side, one major factor remains: the ineptitude and erroneous nature of the US justice system.
For the supposed ‘Land of the Free’ the United States possesses the largest prison population in the world. According to US Bureau of Justice Statistics from 2013 2,220,300 adults were imprisoned in the United States, a shocking 22% of the world’s total. This statistic is made even more alarming when the obvious racial bias within this system is exposed. African Americans are being incarcerated at a rate five times higher than their white counterparts. According to data from the 2010 US Census 2.3% of African-Americans are in prison, the same statistic stands at 0.45% for Caucasians and 0.83% for Hispanics. In 2013 the Huffington Post revealed that there are more African-American males incarnated in the United States than the total amount of prisoners of all ethnicities in Argentina, Canada, Germany, Lebanon, Japan, Finland, Israel and the United Kingdom combined. This only becomes even more alarming when you consider that the population of all of these countries collectively stood at over 1.6 Billion while the total number of African-American males at this time was just 19 million.
The main reason for this mass imprisonment is down to one factor: the ‘War on Drugs’. The War on Drugs was one of President Reagan’s flagship policies. Before this time there was a preference placed on rehabilitation rather than punishment for drug offenders. However, Reagan’s rampant militarism against drugs created an arms race, ironically pumping billions into the drug trade and creating powerful drug cartels such as the Medellin cartel of Pablo Escobar or more recently the Sinaloa Cartel headed by El Chapo. More importantly, however, the punishment for drug-related offenses skyrocketed due to a federal minimum sentencing guide being brought in by Reagan in 1986. In many states these harsh punishments till remain.
Kentucky still punishes first-time offenders for possession with 2 to 10 years in Prison and fines of up to $20,000. Do not comfort yourself by thinking that this is only for hard drugs such as heroin or cocaine as it equally applies to drugs such as Cannabis.
Hundreds of reports from various sources ranging from the New York Times to the US Justice Department have found that there is racial bias in stop and searches for drugs when it comes to African-American citizens. This has acted in unison to adversely affect African-American communities across the United States.
Due to the prominent levels of poverty in these communities caused by factors such as poor education standards, gentrification and a lack of investment, many find themselves swept up into the drug trade in order to survive. In many cases against their wishes and out of desperation.
Inside the prison, there is a strange equality of inequality. No matter what race these prisoners are they are similarly exploited by the powers that be. The US government is provided with a million-strong labour force that they use to create all manner of products for Federal Prison Industries aka UNICOR. These include military jackets, helmets, and other equipment. In turn, this saves the US Department of Defence millions of dollars in procurement and manufacturing costs.
This system of exploitation would be bad enough if was not stoked further by the vast numbers of private prisons. These institutions have sprung up all over the USA over the past three decades. These prisons are problematic, to say the least. Being non-governmental business ventures, they have the primary goal of making a profit. This, in turn, ensures that the priorities of these prisons are completely out of place, with the rehabilitation and care of prisoners being at best peripheral. The food standards are low, while the quality of guards is laughable: Some receive no more than two weeks training, compare this to Germany where Prison guards receive up to two years of training. Due to the horrendous conditions of these prisons, a strike was held by 24,000 prisoners across 24 states on the 9th of September 2016, marking the 45th anniversary of the Attica prison uprising. However, while briefly capturing public attention the masses soon lost interest and the strike fell apart, ultimately achieving nothing.
This system has no interest in reforming these individuals and why would they? These companies can contract out the labour of the prisoners for huge profits. In the 1990s for example 35 South Carolina inmates where subcontracted by Third Generation to stitch the lingerie of Victoria’s Secret.
These prisoners are paid literal pennies for their labour while their goods go on to create huge profits. While some prisoners will be released and may access the limited savings that they earn while incarcerated many will never see these savings due to the three-strike policy. this is where after three offenses, no matter their nature, a citizen automatically receives life imprisonment. These prisoners can only spend their money at internal commissaries thus placing their hard-earned money back into the pockets of the contractors who run these prisons. A truly disgusting prospect.
150 years ago, the ancestors of many of these prisoners were forced to work the plantations, picking cotton for their masters who made huge profits from of their suffering. When the 13th Amendment was passed, and slavery was outlawed it is logical to assume that most hoped that this style of exploitation would not return. Yet, human greed can never be underestimated. Those who wish to make a profit at the expense of those beneath them seem to always find a way. If we wish to prevent this suffering and exploitation then the US prison system needs gargantuan reform, and it needs it soon.