Juneteenth Commemorates the End of Slavery, but Slavery Still Exists in American Prisons

When you are fighting for equality and civil rights, it is extremely important to celebrate your victories. There are so many things wrong in this world, that we can easily get overwhelmed and burnt out unless we take the time to find joy. After celebrating, we activists then can move onto the next political or cultural battle, recharged and ready to create more positive change.

Like many, my heart is filled with hope seeing so many people taking to the streets and getting active fighting for freedom. Juneteenth, the day commemorating slavery finally ending in the United States, is certainly a day to reflect and celebrate important victories. However, after acknowledging the day, we need to remember that slavery actually still exists in American prisons as The Atlantic has covered:

In the shining promise of freedom that was the Thirteenth Amendment, a sharp exception was carved out. Section 1 of the Amendment provides: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” Simply put: Incarcerated persons have no constitutional rights in this arena; they can be forced to work as punishment for their crimes.

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In this new era of prison industry, the criminal “justice” system, the state determined the size of the worker pool. Scores of recently freed slaves and their descendants now labored to generate revenue for the state under a Jim Crow regime.

More than a century later, our prison labor system has only grown. We now incarcerate more than 2.2 million people, with the largest prison population in the world, and the second highest incarceration rate per capita. Our prison populations remain racially skewed. With few exceptions, inmates are required to work if cleared by medical professionals at the prison. Punishments for refusing to do so include solitary confinement, loss of earned good time, and revocation of family visitation. For this forced labor, prisoners earn pennies per hour, if anything at all.

A significant number of convicted prisoners can be safely released, as Time Magazine comprised a team of criminologists, lawyers, and statistical researchers to analyze criminal codes, convictions, and sentences to write the report How Many Americans Are Unnecessarily Incarcerated?. Time reported:

We found that approximately 39% of the nationwide prison population (576,000 people) is behind bars with little public safety rationale. And they can be released, significantly and safely cutting our prison population.

How did we get to this number? First, many people who are in prison shouldn’t have been sent there in the first place. For example, we found that 25% of prisoners (364,000 people), almost all non-violent, lower-level offenders, would be better served by alternatives to incarceration such as treatment, community service, or probation. Second, another 14% (212,000 prisoners) have already served long sentences for more serious crimes and can be safely set free.

Releasing these inmates would save $20 billion annually, enough to employ 270,000 new police officers, 360,000 probation officers, or 327,000 school teachers.

The war on cannabis and greater Drug War have created a New Jim Crow system that not only deprives people of their freedom and educational and employment opportunities, but also perpetuates modern day slavery. Even for people that don’t get sent to prison solely for cannabis or other nonviolent drug offenses, these victimless “crimes” put people in the system in the first place, or end of being probation and parole violations that end up imprisoning them. Let’s reflect this Juneteenth, but remember that we have a lot of fights left to win, including truly ending slavery in the United States of America.

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