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Is Mass Incarceration A Modern Form of Institutionalized Slavery?

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Human Rights
Wordcount: 1796 words Published: 6th Aug 2019

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Mass Incarceration: – A Modern Form of Institutionalized Slavery 

            The idea that America is free of slavery or that slavery was abolished is one of the biggest fallacies in the world. Freedom is a basic right for every human being in the world. American institutions have however found an open way around the basic freedoms of the people using the very institutions that we mandate to protect us. The 13th Amendment was supposed to abolish the practice of slavery and its citizens with a constitutional protection against people who to strip their freedoms. This amendment has only worsened and changed how institutions enslave people in today’s modern world that prides itself with rights and freedoms that have very little impact. Therefore, it can be said that the 13th amendment, although officially abolished slavery in America in 1865, it includes a loophole for the practice of involuntary servitude.

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            Institutionalized slavery is being carried out currently through the justice system and the prison systems. The American prison system represents modern day slavery. The justice system is the main perpetrator since they have the mandate to interpret laws such as the 13th amendment, and ensure that every individual, no matter the race and financial status, gets a fair trial. The prison system acts as the executioner. They therefore, take full advantage of the fact that the people under their care have no other options. The 13th amendment put forward a clear message, but its vagueness as it relates to two issues possess a very big threat to the freedoms of the people. This is evident for the case of African Americans who find themselves defenseless in the face of justice system. The American Criminal justice system strategically forces African Americans to a system of extreme cruelty, repression and control, which is a tactic by the US prisons that have proved successful over the years.

            The first issue has to do with the terms “except as punishment”. It proves to be ambiguous and leaves room for mixed interpretations and loopholes that allow for slavery to live on. The words made it so that slavery was not completely abolished. To some extent it feels like the people who drafted 13th amendment did not truly want slavery to be abolished. This is very offensive since the same people that claim to believe in rights and freedoms, still put forward a discriminatory message. That is; slavery can be abolished but under specific circumstances it will be allowed. Evidently, young men as well as women of color toil away in the 21st century fields and sow in hand. People of color are normally locked up at alarming rates. It is a corporate gain since private corporations take advantage of the cheap labor to reap enormous wealth. This offers a context for the comprehension of how private institutions function in a de facto replacement for modern day slavery.

The second issue has to do with the interpretation of the basis of slavery; that is, what circumstance are to be considered as slavery? This issue is what puts people on the edge about what is considered as slavery. For instance, if a Native American woman goes to court with a claim that her husband locked her up in their house throughout their years of marriage, can this be considered as slavery? Such a case is pure and simple a case of forced servitude, however, legally these people are married and the judge has to establish a link between the woman’s complaint and the institution of slavery. The question is, how is this link established? For any person or institution to be found guilty of slavery, a strong link has to be established.

These instances are a few examples that show the different reasons as to why the constitutional law that is supposed to protect people has failed them. It is also the same law that gives institutions such as prisons, police and the justice system a leeway to discriminate and further the practice of slavery.

In September 2016, there was a massive prison strike in the United States. The prisoners were protesting the fact they are forced to give near to free labor to the government and corporations in partnership with the government for little to no pay. The hard truth is that is that prisons cannot function without the contributions that the inmates put in. However, is all this work part of their punishment or is the government just continuing the practice of slavery while at the same time making money off of it? (Fudge 230)

The work done by inmates for multinationals in the United States is estimated to be a 2-billion-dollar revenue industry. The government also gets to have free maintenance services for their prison systems despite the millions of dollars the Congress allocates to them every financial year. The few multinationals that actually pay their workers in the prison system pay a few cents per hour. This is an extensive infringement on the rights of the people despite the wrongs that they may have committed in the past (Plat 405).

This situation is aggravated by issues of discrimination in the nation. The 13th amendment was obviously a law that benefited the black community in the largest percent. However, discrimination is an issue that affects all people that are not white, that is, Native Americans, Asian Americans, and Latin Americans among other minority groups. Currently, the number of African Americans inside the prison systems is estimated to be five times the number of white Americans. The other racial groups such as Latin Americans and Asian Americans are mostly illegal immigrants and hence the number of people in the reported is largely under estimated.

The key issue that fuels the discriminatory mass incarcerations clearly leads to implicit biases on race and slavery. A large number of this incarcerations is due to minor crimes that white Americans would get very little time for (Taylor et al. 155). This is evidence that non-white Americans, are being subjected to institutional slavery despite the existence of the 13th amendment.  

The proponents that argued for the 13th amendment in the years before its passing had made the case that slavery had no constitutional basis and hence there was no legal argument against its abolition. This argument in my opinion carried a lot of weight and represented the double standards that the White Americans in power at the time held. This law has ended up being a basis for legalizing of slavery. Some opinions against the concept of institutionalized slavery will argue that a prison sentence is not slavery.

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Furthermore, just because the definition of slavery is ambiguous does not mean that there is no modern-day slavery. The ambiguity of the constitutional provision should be a basis to justify slavery in our current society. The ‘White Americans’ with a majority being from the Southern States have taken to new tactics of proclaiming conservatism, financial manipulation and political bloc alliances to try and win back the privilege and opportunity that was gained from the use of slaves.

Moreover, the identity of conservatism is just another way of segregation and in other terms a new slavery system. From an unbiased perspective, opposition can argue that having an opinion is their legal right. However, when this concept is being used to infringe and structurally oppress other groups that do not conform to their choices, then it is slavery

There is a new ideology going around that somehow criminal behavior is based on race. Criminalization is another way that non- white races are being categorized and institutionalized for the continuation of the practice of slavery. How is legalizing slavery in the confines of a prison different from what it has always been? There is no difference, it is the same exact condition just under different definitions and this time sanctioned circumstances.

The American government essentially abolished one type of slavery and replaced it with a new and sophisticated form of it. The criminal justice systems in obvious scenarios target African Americans and essentially benefit the same rich conservative groups that largely fund prisons and the policies behind them. Conservatives will always argue with reasons like the funding helps to improve prison conditions or that they are providing opportunities for individuals in a bad situation to make their lives better. Such kind of justification is what blinds and always blocks efforts to try and mitigate this situation.

To sum up, the issue of institutionalized slavery spills over to the core issues plaguing the American justice system. Convicted felons whether in prison or released, are not allowed to vote. This is another thing stirs up the scars of African American rights and freedoms that were denied during the days of slavery. The fact that African Americans are targeted in alarming numbers for incarceration points to a deep-rooted effort to try and keep them in the institution of slavery. Therefore, the only way to mitigate this issue is to amend the law itself. I do not believe that abolishing that part of the constitution is the way to go. The idea of abolishing slavery is a good thing; however, the law needs to be clear on the finality of the issue and remove any ambiguous wording.

Work Cited  

  • Fudge, Judy. “Slavery and Unfree Labour: The Politics of Naming, Framing, and Blaming.” Labour/Le Travail 82 (2018): 227-244.
  • LeBaron, Genevieve. “Prison Labour, Slavery, and the State.” Revisiting Slavery and Antislavery. Palgrave Macmillan, Cham, 2018. 151-177.
  • Platt, Tony. “Elizabeth Hinton, From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime: The Making of Mass Incarceration in America.” (2018): 403-405.
  • “Prisoners Have No Constitutional Protections Against Slavery Because of One Exception in the 13th Amendment.” Daily Intelligencer, 5 Oct. 2016. General OneFile, http://link.galegroup.com/apps/doc/A465615832/GPS?u=muscatine&sid=GPS&xid=bc77a415. Accessed 3 Dec. 2018.
  • Taylor, Robert Joseph, et al. “Everyday Discrimination Among African American Men: The Impact of Criminal Justice Contact.” Race and justice 8.2 (2018): 154-177.


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