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Wednesday, June 24, 2015
Slavery on the new plantation by Kiilu Nyasha
San Francisco | Police State and Prisons
San Francisco-based journalist/activist Kiilu Nyasha writes that
"Chattel slavery was ended following prolonged guerrilla warfare between
the slaves and the slave-owners and their political allies. Referred to
as the 'Underground Railroad,' it was led by the revolutionary General
Harriet Tubman with support from her alliances with abolitionists, Black
and White. It only makes sense that this new form of slavery must
produce prison abolitionists."
SLAVERY ON THE NEW PLANTATION (updated March 2012) By Kiilu Nyasha
"Slavery 400 years ago, slavery today. It's the same, but with a new
name. They're practicing slavery under color of law." (Ruchell Cinque
The 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution retained the right to
enslave within the confines of prison. “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.” Dec. 6, 1865.
Even before the abolition of chattel slavery, America's history of
prison labor had already begun in New York's State Prison at Auburn soon
after it opened in 1817. Auburn became the first prison that contracted
with a private business to operate a factory within its walls. Later,
in the post Civil War period, the "contract and lease" system
proliferated, allowing private companies to employ prisoners and sell
their products for profit.
In Southern states, Slave Codes were rewritten as Black Codes, a series
of laws criminalizing the law-abiding activities of Black people, such
as standing around, "loitering," or walking at night, "breaking curfew."
The enforcement of these Codes dramatically increased the number of
Blacks in Southern prisons. In 1878, Georgia leased out 1,239 convicts,
1,124 of whom were Black.
The lease system provided slave labor for plantation owners or private
industries as well as revenue for the state, since incarcerated workers
were entirely in the custody of the contractors who paid a set annual
fee to the state (about $25,000). Entire prisons were leased out to
private contractors who literally worked hundreds of prisoners to death.
Prisons became the new plantations; Angola State Prison in Louisiana
was a literal plantation, and still is except the slaves are now called
convicts and the prison is known as "The Farm." (A documentary of that
title is available on DVD.)
The inherent brutality and cruelty of the lease system and the loss of
outside jobs sparked resistance that eventually brought about its
One of the most famous battles was the Coal Creek Rebellion of 1891.
When the Tennessee coal, Iron and Railroad locked out their workers and
replaced them with convicts, the miners stormed the prison and freed 400
captives; and when the company continued to contract prisoners, the
miners burned the prison down. The Tennessee leasing system was
disbanded shortly thereafter. But it remained in many states until the
rise of resistance in the 1930s.
Strikes by prisoners and union workers together were organized by then
radical CIO and other labor unions. They pressured Congress to pass the
1935 Ashurst-Sumners Act making it illegal to transport prison-made
goods across state lines. But under President Jimmy Carter, Congress
granted exemptions to the Act by passing the Justice System Improvement
Act of 1979, which produced the Prison Industries Enhancement program,
or PIE, that eventually spread to all 50 states. This lifted the ban on
interstate transportation and sale of prison-made products, permitting a
for-profit relationship between prisons and the private sector, and
prompting a dramatic increase in prison labor which continues to
As the leasing system phased out, a new, even more brutal exploitation
emerged -- the chain gang. An extremely dehumanizing cruelty that
chained men, and later women, together in groups of five, it was
originated to build extensive roads and highways. The first state to
institute chain gangs was Alabama, followed by Arizona, Florida, Iowa,
Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, Montana, and Oklahoma.
Arizona's first female chain gang was instituted in 1996. Complete with
striped uniforms, the women of a Phoenix jail (to this day) spend four
to six hours a day chained together in groups of 30, clearing roadsides
of weeds and burying the indigent.
Georgia's chain-gang conditions were particularly brutal. Men were put
out to work swinging 12 lb. sledge hammers for 16 hours a day,
malnourished and shackled together, unable to move their legs a full
stride. Wounds from metal shackles often became infected, leading to
illness and death. Prisoners who could not keep up with the grueling
pace were whipped or shut in a sweatbox or tied to a hitching post, a
stationary metal rail. Chained to the post with hands raised high over
his head, the prisoner remained tethered in that position in the Alabama
heat for many hours without water or bathroom breaks. (Human Rights
Watch World Report 1998).
Thanks to a lawsuit settled by the Southern Poverty Law Center,
Alabama's Department of Corrections agreed in 1996 to stop chaining
prisoners together. A few years later, the Center won a Court ruling
that ended use of the hitching post as a violation of the 8th
Amendment's ban on "cruel and unusual punishment."
In response to the demands of World War II, the number of both free and
captive road workers declined significantly. In 1941, there were 1,750
prisoners slaving in 28 active road camps for all types of construction
and maintenance. The numbers bottomed out by war's end at 540 captives
in 17 camps.
The Proliferation of Prisons, Jails, and Camps
In the 1940s, California Governor Earl Warren conducted secret
investigations into the State's only prisons, San Quentin and Folsom.
The depravity, squalor, sadism, and torture he found led the governor to
initiate the building of Soledad Prison in 1951.
Prisoners were put to work in educational and vocational programs that
taught basic courses in English and math, and provided training in
trades ranging from gardening to meat cutting. At wages of 7 to 25 cents
an hour, California prisoners used their acquired skills to turn out
institutional clothing and furniture, license plates and stickers, seed
new crops, slaughter pigs, produce and sell dairy products to a nearby
Within a decade this "model prison" at Soledad had become another
torture chamber of filthy dungeons, literal "holes," virulently racist
guards, officially sanctioned brutality, torture, and murder. Though
prison jobs were supposed to be voluntary, if prisoners refuse to work
they were often given longer sentences, denied privileges, or thrown
into solitary confinement. Forced to work long hours under miserable
conditions, in the 1960s, "Soledad Brother," George Jackson, organized a
work strike that turned into a riot after white strikebreakers tried to
lynch one of the Black strikers.
The Black Movement's resistance, led by George Jackson, W. L. Nolen,
and Hugo "Yogi" Pinell, eventually brought Congressional oversight and
overhaul of California's prison system. (The Melancholy History of
Soledad Prison, by Minh S. Yee.).
California’s prison system rose exponentially to approximately 174,000
prisoners crammed into 90 penitentiaries, prisons and camps stretched
across 900 miles of the fifth-largest economy in the world, as Ruth
Gilmore's book, "Golden Gulag" reports. That number can be doubled or
tripled by those on other forms of penal control, probation, parole, or
Since 1984, the California has erected 43 prisons (and only one
university) making it a global leader in prison construction. Most of
the new prisons have been built in rural areas far from family and
friends, and most captives are Black or Brown men, although the
incarceration of women has skyrocketed. Suicide and recidivism rates
approach twice the national average, and the State spends more on
prisons than on higher education. (The seeming contradiction between
the official figure of 33 prisons relates to the additional buildings
constructed at a given prison complex, and the various camps and county
Between 1998 and 2009, the CDCR’s budget grew from $3.5 billion to
$10.3 billion (the latest figures available). At its peak in August
2007, the department had 72 gyms and 125 dayrooms jammed with 19,618
"They provided an accurate and extremely graphic example of the
crowding and inhumanity that engulfed the entire system," said Don
Specter, director of the nonprofit Prison Law Office in Berkeley, which
sued to force the state to ease crowding as a way to improve the
treatment of sick and mentally ill inmates.
The Privatizing of Federal and State Prisons
Under court order to reduce overcrowding, by 2009, the CDCR had
transferred 8,000 prisoners to private prisons in four states
–Tennessee, Mississippi, Oklahoma, and Arizona, among the most
virulently racist states in the country. The rest of the prisoners were
transferred to county jails. Currently, the inmate population is about
142,000 and must remove another 17,000 prisoners to reach the June 2013
In 1985, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Warren Burger lauded China's prison
labor program: "1,000 inmates in one prison I visited comprised a
complete factory unit producing hosiery and what we would call casual or
sport shoes... Indeed it had been a factory and was taken over to make a
prison." Burger called for the conversion of prisons into factories,
the repeal of laws limiting prison industry production and sales, and
the active participation of business and organized labor.
Heeding the judge's call, California voters passed Prop 139 in 1990,
establishing the Joint Venture Program allowing California businesses to
cash in on prison labor. "This is the new jobs program for California,
so we can compete on a Third World basis with countries like
Bangladesh," observed Richard Holober with the California Federation of
Currently, California's Prison Industrial Authority (CALPIA) employs,
7000 captives assigned to 5039 positions in manufacturing, agricultural
service enterprises, and selling and administration at 22 prisons
throughout the state. It produces goods and services such as office
furniture, clothing, food products, shoes, printing services, signs,
binders, gloves, license plates, cell equipment, and much more. Wages
are $.30 to $.95 per hour before deductions.
For the State's highest wage, $1 hour, prisoners provide the "backbone
of the state's wild land fire fighting crews," according to an
unpublished CDC report. The State Department of Forestry saves more than
$80 million annually using prison labor. California's Department of
Forestry has 200 Fire Crews comprised of CDC and CYA (California Youth
Authority) minimum-security captives housed in 46 Conservation Camps
throughout the state. These prisoners average 10 million work hours per
year according to the CDCR.
"Their primary function is to construct fire lines by hand in areas
where heavy machinery cannot be used because of steep topography, rocky
terrain, or areas that may be considered environmentally sensitive."
(I.e., the most dangerous fire lines).
Now at least 37 states have similar programs wherein prisoners
manufacture everything from blue jeans to auto parts, electronics and
toys. Clothing made in Oregon and California is exported to other
countries, competing successfully with apparel made in Asia and Latin
One of the newest forms of slave labor is the U.S. Army's "Civilian
Inmate Labor Program" to "benefit both the Army and corrections systems"
by providing "a convenient source of labor at no direct cost to Army
installations," additional space to alleviate prison overcrowding, and
cost-effective use of land and facilities otherwise not being utilized.
"With a few exceptions," this program is currently limited to prisoners
under the Federal Bureau of Prisons (FBOP) that allows the Attorney
General to provide the services of federal prisoners to other federal
agencies, defining the types of services they can perform. The Program
stipulates that the "Army is not interested in, nor can afford, any
relationship with a corrections facility if that relationship stipulates
payment for civilian inmate labor. Installation civilian inmate labor
program operating costs must not exceed the cost avoidance generated
from using inmate labor." In other words the prison labor must be free
The three "exceptions" to exclusive Federal contracting are as follows:
(1) "a demonstration project" providing "prerelease employment training
to nonviolent offenders in a State correctional facility" [CF]. (2)
Army National Guard units "may use inmates from an off-post State and/or
local CF." (3) Civil Works projects. Services provided might include
constructing or repairing roads, maintaining or reforesting public land;
building levees, landscaping, painting, carpentry, trash pickup, etc.
This Civilian Inmate Labor Program document includes in its countless
specifications such caveats as "Inmates must not be referred to as
employees." A prisoner would not qualify if he/she is a "person in whom
there is a significant public interest," who has been a "significant
management problem," "a principal organized crime figure," any "inmate
convicted of a violent crime," a sex offense, involvement with drugs
within the last three years, an escape risk, "a threat to the general
public." Makes one wonder why such a prisoner isn't just released or
paroled. In fact, the "hiring qualifications" -- makes me suspect the
"Civilian Inmate Labor Program" is a backdoor draft, especially in lieu
of a military already stretched to its limit.
Note: When I tried to find an updated web page on the Civilian Inmate
Labor Program, there was none. The date remains 2005 for its latest
report. Could the latest data be classified?
The Federal Prison Industries (FPI), a nonprofit Justice Department
subsidiary, that does business as UNICOR, was created in 1935, and began
supplying the Pentagon on a broad scale in the 1980s.
prison privatization boom began in the 1980s, under the governments of
Ronald Reagan and George Bush Sr., but reached its height in 1990 under
Bill Clinton when the Wall Street stocks were selling like hotcakes. In
fact, President Clinton accomplished a record $10 billion prison
building boom in the 1990s.
program for cutting the federal workforce resulted in the Justice
Department’s contracting of private prison corporations for the
incarceration of undocumented workers and high-security inmates. (Global
By 2003, there were 100 FPI factories working 20,274 prisoners with
sales totaling $666.8 million. And currently FPI employs about 19,000
captives, slightly less than 20 percent of the federal prison
population, in 106 prison factories around the country. Profits totaled
at least $40 million!
In 2005, FPI sold more than $750,000,000 worth of goods to the federal
government. Sales to the Army alone put UNICOR on the Army's list of top
50 suppliers, ahead of well-known corporations like Dell Computer,
according to Wayne Woolley, Newhouse News Service.
In 2011, the Justice Policy Institute (JPI) released a report that
exposes how private prison companies are “working to make money through
harsh policies and longer sentences.” The report notes that while the
total number of prisoners increased less than 16 percent, the number of
people held in private federal and state facilities increased by 120 and
33 percent, respectively.
spending on so-called corrections rose to $74 billion in 2007. And last
year (2011) the two largest private prison companies — Corrections
Corporation of America (CCA) and GEO Group — made over $2.9 billion in
profits. These corporations use three strategies to influence public
policy: lobbying, direct campaign contributions and networking. They
succeeded in getting Arizona’s harsh new immigration laws passed, and
came close to winning the privatization of all of Florida’s prisons.
relatively new ordering tool used by BOP (Bureau of Prisons) is GSA
Advantage!, the federal government’s premier online ordering system that
provides 24-hour access to over 17 million products and services,
solutions available from over 16,000 GSA Multiple Award Schedules
contractors, as well as all products available from GSA Global Supply. http://www.gsaadvantage.gov
the beginning of the war in Afghanistan in 2001, the Army's
Communication and Electronics Command at Fort Monmouth, N.J., has
shipped more than 200,000 radios to combat zones, most with at least
some components manufactured by federal inmates working in 11 prison
electronics factories around the country. Under current law, UNICOR
enjoys a contracting preference known as "mandatory source," which
obligates government agencies to try to buy certain goods from the
prisons before allowing private companies to bid on the work. This same
contracting restriction applies to state agencies.
The demand for defense products from FPI became so great that "national
exigency" provisions were invoked so the 20 percent limit on goods
provided in each category could be exceeded. The rules were waived
during the 1991 Persian Gulf War. Private manufacturers say they've been
hurt by such practice, as they are unable to bid on various products.
According to the Left Business Observer, the federal prison industry
produces 100% of all military helmets, ammunition belts, bulletproof
vests, ID tags, shirts, pants, tents, bags, and canteens. Along with war
supplies, prison workers supply 98% of the entire market for equipment
assembly services; 93% of paints and paintbrushes; 92% of stove
assembly; 46% of body armor; 36% of home appliances; 30% of
headphones/microphones/speakers; and 21% of office furniture. Airplane
parts, medical supplies, and much more: prisoners are even raising
seeing-eye dogs for blind people.
By 2007, the overall sales figures and profits for federal and state
prison industries had skyrocketed into the billions. Apparently, the
military industrial complex (MIC) and the prison industrial complex
(PIC) have joined forces.
The PIC is a network of public and private prisons, of military
personnel, politicians, business contacts, prison guard unions,
contractors, subcontractors and suppliers all making big profits at the
expense of poor people who comprise the overwhelming majority of
captives. The fastest growing industry in the country, it has its own
trade exhibitions, conventions, websites, and mail-order/Internet
catalogs and direct advertising campaigns. Corporate stockholders who
make money off prisoners' labor lobby for longer sentences, in order to
expand their workforce.
Replacing the "contract and lease" system of the 19th Century, private
companies that have contracted prison labor include Microsoft, Boeing,
Honeywell, IBM, Revlon, Pierre Cardin, Compaq, Victoria Secret, Macy’s,
Target, Nordstrom, and countless others.
In 1995, there were only five private prisons in the country, with a
population of 2,000 inmates; now, private companies operate 264
correctional facilities housing some 99,000 adult prisoners. The two
largest private prison corporations in the US, GEO Group (formerly
Wackenhut) and Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) are
transnationals, managing prisons and detention centers in 34 states,
Australia, Canada, South Africa, and the United Kingdom.
A top performer on the New York Stock Exchange, CCA called California
its "new frontier," and boasts of investors such as Wal-Mart, Exxon,
General Motors, Ford, Chevrolet, Texaco, Hewlett-Packard, Verizon, and
UPS. Currently, CCA has 80,000 beds in 65 facilities, and GEO Group
operates 61 facilities with 49,000 beds, according to Wikipredia.
Employers (Read: slavers) don't have to pay health or unemployment
insurance, vacation time, sick leave or overtime. They can hire, fire or
reassign inmates as they so desire, and can pay the workers as little
as 21 cents an hour. The inmates cannot respond with a strike, file a
grievance, or threaten to leave and get a better job.
On September 19, 2005, UNICOR was commended for its outstanding support
of the nation’s military. Deputy Commander of the Defense Supply Center
Philadelphia (DSCP), presented the Bureau of Prisons Director with a
“Supporting the Warfighter” award. The award recognized UNICOR for its
tremendous support of DSCP’s mission to provide equipment, materials,
and supplies to each branch of the armed forces. “We at DSCP are very
appreciative of UNICOR, especially with our critical need items. With
more than $200 million worth of orders during Fiscal Years 2004 and
2005, UNICOR has not had a single delinquency.”
Mass roundups of immigrants and non-citizens, currently about half of
all federal prisoners, and dragnets in low-income 'hoods have increased
the prison population to unprecedented levels. Andrea Hornbein points
out in Profit Motive: "The majority of these arrests are for low level
offenses or outstanding warrants, and impact the taxpayer far more than
the offense. For example, a $300 robbery resulting in a 5-year sentence,
at the Massachusetts average of $43,000 per year, will cost $215,000.
That doesn't even include law enforcement and court costs."
Nearly 75% of all prisoners are drug war captives. A criminal record
today practically forces an ex-con into illegal employment since they
don't qualify for legitimate jobs or subsidized housing. Minor parole
violations, unaffordable bail, parole denials, longer mandatory
sentencing and three strikes laws, slashing of welfare rolls,
overburdened court systems, shortages of public defenders, massive
closings of mental hospitals, and high unemployment (about 50% for Black
men) -- all contribute to the high rates of incarceration and
recidivism. Thus, the slave labor pool continues to expand.
Among the most powerful unions today are the guards' unions. The
California Corrections Peace Officers Association (CCPOA) wields so much
political power it practically decides who governs the state. Moreover,
its members get the State's biggest payouts, according to the L.A.
Times. "More than 1600 officers' earnings exceeded legislators' 2007
salaries of $113,098." Base pay for 6,000 guards earning $100,000 or
more totaled $453 million with overtime adding another $220 million to
wages. One lieutenant guard earned more than any other state official,
including the Governor, or $252,570.
California’s per prisoner cost has raised to $49,000, and that figure
doubles and triples for elderly and high-security captives. That’s
enough money to send a person through Harvard!
The National Correctional Industries Association (NCIA), is an
international nonprofit professional association, whose self-declared
mission is “to promote excellence and credibility in correctional
industries through professional development and innovative business
NCIA's members include all 50 state correctional industry agencies,
Federal Prison Industries, foreign correctional industry agencies, city
and county jail industry programs, and private sector companies working
in partnership with correctional industries.
Chattel slavery was ended following prolonged guerrilla warfare between
the slaves and the slave-owners and their political allies. Referred to
as the “Underground Railroad,” it was led by the revolutionary General
Harriet Tubman with support from her alliances with abolitionists, Black
and White. It only makes sense that this new form of slavery must
produce prison abolitionists.
As George Jackson noted in a KPFA interview with Karen Wald (Spring
1971), "I'm saying that it's impossible, impossible, to
concentration-camp resisters....We have to prove that this thing won't
work here. And the only way to prove it is resistance...and then that
resistance has to be supported, of course, from the street....We can
fight, but the results are...not conducive to proving our point...that
this thing won't work on us. From inside, we fight and we die....the
point is -- in the new face of war -- to fight and win."
Power to the people.
--Kiilu Nyasha is a San Francisco-based journalist and former member of
the Black Panther Party. Kiilu hosts a bimonthly TV program, "Freedom
Is A Constant Struggle," on BAVC Commons, and many shows are archived
If voting could change the system, they would make it illegal.Jamil al-Amin aka H. Rap Brown.