A Surprising Comparison Between Prison and Slavery
The fairly new term, “mass incarceration,” means that the U.S. has 2.3 million prisoners, more than any country in the world. A greater percentage of the U.S. population is in prison than in any other nation. The U.S. has 5% of the world’s population and 25% of the world’s prisoners. The entire U.S. correctional population, including those on probation, on parole and awaiting trial, is 7.3 million Americans.
These eye-popping numbers came about for many reasons: mandatory minimum sentences, three-strikes legislation, illegal drugs, gangs, immorality in all its modern forms, the war on drugs, the decline of marriage and families, high rates of recidivism, incarceration of the mentally ill, the decline of capital punishment, problems with the criminal justice system and all the forces pushing tough crime policies. Difficult economic times focus attention on the increasing costs of keeping all these people – 93% of them men – behind bars. Each prisoner costs about $25,000 per year, and the average prisoner does little to offset the cost of confinement. The social costs may be even higher. Breadwinners are lost, families destroyed, more kids grow up without fathers or mothers, welfare costs increase, the entire sex ratio is thrown out of balance and prisoners face grim prospects when released.
The hyper-incarceration statistics for African-American males are much worse. We incarcerate one in nine African-Americans between the ages of 20 and 34. In 2003, it was calculated that “At current levels of incarceration newborn black males in this country have a greater than a 1 in 4 chance of going to prison during their lifetimes, while Hispanic males have a 1 in 6 chance, and white males have a 1 in 23 chance of serving time.” By 2007, just four years later, the U.S. Department of Justice estimated that African-American males have a 32% chance of going to prison or jail – becoming slaves – in their lifetimes. Young black male high school dropouts are almost 50 times more likely to wind up behind bars than the average American and 60% of that demographic cohort eventually goes to prison.
African-American males have always been incarcerated in significantly higher percentages than their portion of the general population, except in the Old South, where slaves were virtually never incarcerated. The state slavery in our modern penitentiary system, which now cages over one million African-Americans, and more than a million whites and Latinos, did not exist in the antebellum South. A prosecutor in the Old South, whose district covered at least half a dozen counties, in eight years of public service, only indicted 12 African-Americans out of 2,000 indictments. Disparate treatment of enslaved African-Americans in the legal system existed in the Old South. Back then, blacks received much less punishment from the formal legal system than did whites, the opposite of the way it is now. Slaves were too valuable as workers to incarcerate. The North incarcerated 30 times more African-Americans on a percentage basis than did the South in 1850. In 1850, almost all of the incarcerated African-Americans, North or South, were classified as “free colored.” Antebellum prisons in Mississippi and Georgia recorded zero African-American inmates at different times. By 1890, there were still only 8,417 prison inmates of all races in the entire South, and the federal prison system did not yet exist.
The most severe injustices of slavery were limitations on education and opportunity for advancement. The principal injustices of antebellum slavery can be avoided as we adopt some old-fashioned punishments and re-establish the importance of hard work under the constitutional guarantees all now invoke. Continuous employment is an unappreciated feature of slavery, and it was generally good for the hard worker. Many ex-slaves looked down on the generations raised in freedom because the younger generations never learned to work as hard as their slave ancestors. Many slaves had good personal relationships with their owners. The hard truth is that it’s better to be exploited and appreciated than ignored, disparaged and excluded.
The number of African-Americans incarcerated right now is numerically equal to one-half of the entire antebellum male slave population in 1860. African-American males in 2008, with infinitely greater educational opportunities, were 337 times more likely to be in prison than African-Americans in the antebellum South. African-Americans in the modern U.S. correctional population, including those on probation and parole, exceed the total number of American slaves in 1850! The factors of low employment, poor discipline and the destruction of the modern family best explain these terrible statistics. As a percentage of population, the South still incarcerates far fewer African-Americans than the North compared to the number of whites incarcerated in those states. Those who contend racial disparities in incarceration are a legacy of slavery have some explaining to do. Comparing rates of incarceration for whites to rates of incarceration for blacks yields a surprise: the greatest incarceration disparities today in favor of whites and against blacks are in the North, in the very same states that took the strongest stances against slavery. Iowa, Vermont, New Jersey, Connecticut, and Wisconsin had the greatest racial disparities as of 2005, all over 10-to-1, while the Deep South states of Alabama, Arkansas, Mississippi, Louisiana, Georgia, South Carolina, and Texas all had racial disparities of less than 5-to-1. Almost without exception, the states of the old Union incarcerate significantly greater percentages of African-Americans compared to the percentage of whites incarcerated – about twice as many – than the states of the old Confederacy.
The modern American prisoner is 20 times more likely to commit suicide than the antebellum slave. A surprising comparison using thorough research proves that modern mass incarceration is an unrealized social and financial disaster of mammoth proportions – while antebellum slavery for most U.S. slaves was not as inhumane as many believe. I contrast the modern American prison system with antebellum slavery, with narratives from hundreds of ex-slaves, using their own words. In the Old South, outlaws were generally white people, while slaves were considered safe and never incarcerated – race and crime are not truly related. I propose racially neutral reforms to reduce and improve incarceration through discipline and hard work, substantially helping taxpayers, victims of crime, our “new age slaves” in prison and the American economy. “Prison & Slavery – A Surprising Comparison” contains the only practical market-oriented, faith-based solutions to what the NAACP’s president now regards as the greatest major crisis in our democracy, mass incarceration. Forget stereotypes. The facts will surprise you.
Well over half of released prisoners wind up behind bars again, often within three years of their release date. It’s a revolving door. In 1910, Emma Goldman wrote: “Year after year the gates of prison hells return to the world an emaciated, deformed, will-less, shipwrecked crew of humanity, with the Cain mark on their foreheads, their hopes crushed, all their natural inclinations thwarted. With nothing but hunger and inhumanity to greet them, these victims soon sink back into crime as the only possibility of existence.” With regard to recidivism, nothing has changed in 100 years.
Modern prisons or “penitentiaries” have not been around as long as many believe, less than 200 years. Modern prisons developed after the U.S. Constitution was written. The original purpose was to rehabilitate offenders, but rehabilitation has been spectacularly ineffective. Prison usually makes offenders worse. The only thing it really does is keep them from preventing crimes while they are behind bars. Federal statutes prevent prison industries and prison labor from competing in the marketplace, which is why most prisoners are idle most of the time.
The mark of Cain today is the “felon” label, a stigma that effectively disqualifies ex-cons of public assistance, subsidized housing, food stamps and most jobs. Today, because African-Americans constitute a huge percentage of the correctional population, the felon stigma is called the New Jim Crow, after a book by that name written by Michelle Alexander. Angela Y. Davis, the famous radical, has called modern mass incarceration “New Age Slavery.” Most critics of the current system of mass incarceration come from the left half of the political spectrum, those who side with the less fortunate members of society. Unfortunately, the liberal critics of the system do not have many practical solutions to the problem. Booker T. Washington knew better than W.E.B. Du Bois about some things. Big government has been in charge of state slavery all along, has clearly failed in its experiment and offers little hope by itself.
Our delusion of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, originating as a humanitarian movement, was the idea that people would get better with time if placed in cages or cells. This misconception brought about yet another form of slavery, which is now more prevalent in the United States than in any other country. We have not reached the final chapter of American slavery. We abolished slavery, we thought, and then developed a new form of slavery. Antebellum chattel slavery is gone, but new age American slavery, mass incarceration, is much worse. We are not accustomed to thinking of prisoners as “slaves,” but in all the basic ways, they are state slaves. Although not strictly chattel, prisoners owe absolute obedience, have no physical freedom and little status, enjoy few rights and remain subjugated or abused for many years, in prison and after their release. The United States has gone from an agrarian, paternalistic, personal form of private enterprise slavery to the socialized, impersonal, institutional, mass state slavery through incarceration inside hard surfaces, directed from Washington, D.C. and 50 state capitals. The twisted world of modern mass incarceration, state slavery, is New Age Slavery. Unfortunately, our American prison population is now the largest group of full-ride welfare recipients in the world.
The problem must be approached from market-oriented, racially neutral, biblical, constitutional and pro-American ways. I studied antebellum slavery and determined it was not as horrific for the average slave as our modern media portrays it. This is confirmed on a Library of Congress website where about 2,300 Slave Narratives gathered from 1936 to 1938 are posted. For each horror story of antebellum slavery, there is an ex-slave who remembered the Old South fondly, usually because they had good owners. Modern research proves that slavery was economically efficient, productive and profitable for the slaveholders. Many plantations were self-sufficient in food, clothing and shelter. The slaves commonly had good healthcare, adequate food, clothing and shelter, no financial worries, were in superb physical condition, did not use alcohol or drugs to excess, did not kill each other nearly as much as they do today, worshiped fervently, had fun holidays that Frederick Douglas recognized kept slave discontent down, were never incarcerated, displayed Christian virtues and had many children. Slaves consumed 88% of their own economic production. Slave children were more likely to grow up in a two-parent family than modern American kids.
We can derive some solutions to modern problems from the study of antebellum times if we take the racism and injustice out of our New Age slavery. Obviously, reforms will proceed on a non-discriminatory basis. In a nutshell, we need (1) repeal of three federal statutes inhibiting prison labor and industries, together with (2) an exemption for prison industries from most employment-related laws, to allow laissez-faire negotiation between private employers and prisoners (not convict leasing); and to significantly reduce the number of people in prison: (3) an old-fashioned home monitoring device, a metallic collar, with or without modern electronic enhancements, and (4) corporal punishment (strongly recommended in the Bible and by a dozen ex-slaves I quote, together with George Washington as a general, not as a slaveholder, Thomas Jefferson as a legislator, not as a slaveholder, Cesare Beccaria, etc.). These reforms will allow prison labor to work in a safer, spiritual, more positive environment, in businesses run by religious groups, industry or anyone willing to invest in prison labor and industries.
Corporal punishment has worked everywhere they’ve ever tried it and was a feature of every slave society and most free societies in history. Liberty is preserved with corporal punishment and metallic collars (or modern monitoring devices). After punishment, offenders are not removed from their families, marriages, jobs, schools, churches and communities. Except to incapacitate criminals while in prison, long years of incarceration have failed everywhere to punish, deter or rehabilitate criminals. The supply-side attack method of fighting the war on drugs has failed completely; it is time to attack the demand side with corporal punishment, just as they successfully do in some nations we now regard as backward.
Hard work is nearly the opposite of crime. We need to provide useful work for American prisoners, teaching them how to discipline themselves and prepare for their release, keeping them out of trouble, and breaking the power of prison & street gangs. This can only be accomplished if prison industries are self-supporting and free of most government economic regulation. The public will not pay for other types of rehabilitation and tends to believe “nothing works.” The current economic crisis can be overcome better if we put our human resources to work.
Change is coming. California faces a massive crisis in their prison system, as federal judges, upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court, order the release of from 30,000 to 46,000 prisoners California cannot afford to support with medical services. In other states, correctional budgets have increased steadily for years in relation to educational funding. Societies eventually do what makes economic sense with their prisoners. American prisons and penal policies clearly and without question need and will have fundamental reform.