Bennu Hannibal Ra-Sun traces the emergence of contemporary mass incarceration from older forms of chattel slavery. This article first appeared in the San Francisco Bay View.
As I write this article, I am not sure what day the Civil War began or what day it ended. The facts that I do know about the Civil War are not worth repeating here, as that story already occupies plenty of space in American text. My muse, instead, is about the particular vestige of slavery that the Civil War bequeathed to us on Dec. 6, 1865, that now forms the basis of our struggle to end mass incarceration and prison slavery in 2017.
On Dec. 6, 1865, the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified. This is the date that the struggle to end slavery repositioned itself, by virtue of the 13th Amendment, to the prison systems of America.
As we all now know or should know, the 13th Amendment did not abolish slavery; it nationalized it. We must keep in mind that the great deception and myth that the 13th Amendment abolished slavery was aided by the fact that in 1865, very few Black people in this country were allowed to see a copy of the Constitution. Textbooks in Black schools post-Civil War either didn’t have the Constitution in them to begin with, or it was removed before the books were passed to Black schools.
The fact that so few people ever actually saw a copy of the Constitution has been instrumental in the perpetuation of the lie about what the 13th Amendment did and didn’t do. When the nationwide Sept. 9, 2016, demonstrations were taking place, I fielded approximately 50-100 media requests for interviews. After about 10-15 interviews in, I noticed that a distinct pattern had emerged; the journalists were always either commenting on the fact of, or asking the question, why do we refer to slavery in our statements?
When I would ask them had they ever read the 13th Amendment or had they read it in the last two years, the answer was predominantly, “No.” At that point, I made it a prerequisite that every journalist I spoke to for an interview had to read the 13th Amendment before I would be willing to be interviewed.
We have a tall order before us in undoing assumptions and mistaken beliefs about this amendment. A deliberate lie that was told for over 150 years takes a lot of effort to correct.
The government, the beneficiary of this lie, has been able to institutionalize concepts about people, prisons and their criminal justice system under the guise of crime and punishment, which has allowed them to maintain the enterprise of slavery without interruption. As I stated above, the 13th Amendment allowed the government to nationalize Black bodies as a natural resource or capital.
Nationalize: 1. to make national in character. 2. to transfer ownership or control of (land, resources, industries, etc.) to the nation’s government.
As we all know, prior to the Civil War and ratification of the 13th Amendment, private citizens were the “owners” of slaves. The slave worked for and enriched the master. The government received very little, if anything, from this arrangement. The 13th Amendment was designed, in part, to remedy that.
Nationalization is something that we all experience and interact with on a daily basis, yet most of us are probably not aware of it. In the Ruby Ridge and Standing Rock standoffs, we saw it in effect. Oil is also a natural resource that is nationalized and controlled by the government. In foreign countries, we see resources like diamonds nationalized. What this means is that in order for private citizens to enter into these industries, they have to get consent from the government. Consent usually comes in the form of a drilling or mining license or a lease.
For example, in attempting to allow ranchers access to “federal” land for cattle grazing, the government has agencies like the Bureau of Land Management. After the 13th Amendment was ratified, state and federal governments established or modified departments of corrections to manage the prison slave industry.
Thus, after Dec. 6, 1865, if a private citizen wanted access to slave labor, he had to pay a fee to the government. This process gave birth to the phrase “convict leasing.” This quickly became a lucrative enterprise for many state and federal governments, with some states funding large portions of their entire budgets off of these leases.
Of course, as with any capitalistic enterprise, profits are stimulated by demand, which, in turn, calls for increasing the supply. In this sense, supply meant more slaves, which gave rise to the first instances of arbitrary laws being passed that helped fuel the first edition of mass incarceration and prison slavery: Black Codes, vagrancy laws etc. What we are experiencing today with the “war on drugs,” mandatory minimums, habitual offender laws etc. are mere modernized versions of the management protocols of the slave enterprise that was moved to the prisons in 1865.
What we must keep in mind is that from its inception, these prison plantations were formulated to maintain the continuance of an economic enterprise, so far as it concerns Black people. Prior to the 13th Amendment, few, in fact, hardly any Black people were even in prison.
Why? Because, for one, the plantation was our prison. Two, we did not have enough freedom to commit any crimes. Attempting to leave the plantation was criminal. A Black person could not just go downtown or stroll in the park. We were banished from society, so our presence had to be explained in a defined way.
After the 13th Amendment was ratified, whole new prisons and departments of corrections were erected as institutions for the control and management of Black labor in this country. The blueprint for these institutions was the plantations. Indeed, some prisons, such as Angola in Louisiana and many in Texas, were built on actual slave plantations.
These were places of enterprise, not reform. There was no health care on the plantation, and there would not be any in prison. Nutritional food: No! Education and rehab: We all know that it was illegal to educate a slave.
These businesses were designed to keep costs down while maximizing profits. These same fundamentals continue on to this day. Prisons will never afford these services because they were never designed for these purposes. And the very states of the Confederacy that fought so hard to maintain slavery are the same ones today that lead the world in incarceration rates.
True reforms are bad for business, and that’s why every prison culture around the country is the same. Negative behavior, drugs, violence, ignorance, etc. are promoted. Why? Because it ensures recidivism, which is good for business. Ask any business owner and they will tell you that the best customer is a repeat customer. Apple wants us to keep buying the iPhone. AT&T wants us to stay on their network. The prison industry wants us to keep coming back. Recidivism rates hover around 60-70%. Shit working like a sewing machine.
When confronting prison slavery, we have to keep everything in the context of economics because that’s what slavery is – an economic system. Our conditions of confinement are merely a by-product of the system that we are in. The beatings, inhumane conditions, solitary confinements, inadequate nutrition and health care are means to an end.
The infamous Willie Lynch letter showed us that they have perfected their method of creating a slave. And while the authenticity of this letter can be debated, its science cannot. A slave is made; we live daily in its process. Our challenge, our struggle is to resist the slave-making process, while implementing a plan to make the enterprise no longer profitable, thereby ending its existence.
The vanguards of our movement, those of us who are conscious of these factors, are deemed the threats. We are threats because we threaten the corporate bottom line where profit margins are reported. Absent our ability to affect the corporate bottom line, we are nothing more than philosophers, talking heads and sympathy-seeking disgruntled slaves. Just chronic complainers who can’t solve our problem.
Our kryptonite to the prison slavery enterprise is and forever remains the labor strikes and boycotts of their in-house prison enterprises. In the words of Dr. King, to strike and boycott is to “redistribute the pain.” Their great fear is that their $80 billion system will stop producing profits for them – the same fear they had in 1860.
In the book “Worse than Slavery” by David M. Oshinsky, we learn that Parchman prison had turned a profit of $185,000 less than one year after it opened. On Page 109, we find proof of the motive behind U.S. prisons:
“The [warden] was not expected to be a professional penologist. The state wanted an ‘experienced farmer’ for this position. The [warden’s] job was to make a good crop. ‘His annual report to the legislature is not of salvaged lives, a newspaper remarked. ‘It is a profit and loss statement, with an accent on profits.’”
Our ability to impact the system and to change our circumstances is unmatched by any other sector of labors. Why? Because in society, the bill collector still visits the striking worker whether they go to work or not. They still have to buy groceries, still have to buy gas, still have to pay the water, gas and electric bill. But with us in prison, this dynamic is different because the state has to provide for all of our needs whether we work and shop with them or not. The problem becomes that they – the state – no longer has the revenue that is collected from our labor and contributions that they use to pay those bills.
Our labor, which produces a wide range of products and provides all sorts of services, plus the money we spend on canteen, incentive packages, phone calls etc. is the backbone of any department of corrections. This is how their bills and salaries are paid.
On the first day of strikes and boycotts, our impact is felt immediately. The DOC starts losing that daily revenue that we spend, and officers immediately shift to overtime because they then have to start cooking the food, pulling trash etc. With each day that passes, we wreak more and more havoc on the corporate financial sheets.
We have to build our movement one step at a time, until we get to that point of critical mass where our sacrifices finally break their backs. That! … is redistributing the pain.
One final point needs expounding on. There is the great myth that prisons are funded to the tune of $80 billion nationwide by taxpayer dollars. Again, nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, prisons put profits into the general fund or otherwise save states billions of dollars by using prison labor.
If we intend to be taken seriously in our observations in calling this slavery, then we have to be critical in our analysis. On any plantation, it is the crop in the field that funds the operation, not tax dollars. I showed where Parchman turned a profit in its first year of operations. In 1878, the state of Alabama generated 73 percent of its entire budget from prison labor.
Declines to the early 1870s prison population booms did not occur until convict leasing was banned in the early 1900s. Alabama was the last state to ban the practice, in 1920. Prison populations remained stable because, without the ability to generate revenue from this prison labor, states had no economic incentive to foot the bill for non-productive assets – human bodies. Prison populations were reduced in proportion to the amount of revenue that could be generated from us in order to pay the bills.
This all changed in the late ‘70s to early ‘80s. During this time, a lot of manufacturing jobs were being outsourced to places like China, where workers were paid $2 a day or less. What emerged was predictable – with China and other countries being able to produce their products for less because they didn’t have to pay things like minimum wage and vacation time, foreign manufacturers took over manufacturing industries and put a lot of U.S. manufacturers out of business. Our trade deficit exploded, and tariffs, quotas and taxes on imports could not stem the tide. The solution became our problem.
U.S. manufacturers prevailed on Congress to investigate whether these foreign companies were enjoying an unfair advantage through the use of prison labor. When this was confirmed, Congress enacted laws that once again reauthorized U.S. firms’ access to prison labor for convict leasing.
We all know the results. The “war on drugs” was declared. Education funds were removed from prisons. Mandatory minimums, habitual offender laws and the like were passed. Good-time credits were rolled back, and parole became tougher to make.
Then, the factories were built and the prison populations exploded. As I will continue to repeat, we have to analyze mass incarceration and prison slavery in financial terms if we intend to end it. The maxim that “crime don’t pay” is fool’s gold.
So, we must ask – and answer – the question: If we were and are incarcerated and enslaved so that we can be exploited for our labor and financial contributions, then why do we continue to provide them? Why are we funding our own oppression?
The guards get paid, the lights stay on, profits are made, and we suffer daily because we continue to spend on phone calls, canteen, shoe packages etc., and because we continue to go to work, produce a tag, or furniture, or glasses, or uniforms, or chemicals, or night vision goggles, or whatever, which is sold by the department of corrections on the open market for xxx dollars, and these dollars are then used to fund the government, including paying the salaries of prosecutors, judges and police.
We have to organize against these factors with a movement rooted in economics, not emotions. Our pain won’t stop until their profits stop. And the only way that this will happen is if we redistribute the pain – away from us and onto their financial bottom line.
The official launch date to announce our Campaign to Redistribute the Pain 2018 is Dec. 6, 2017. On this date, we should start promoting a bi-monthly plan to boycott canteen, phone, incentive packages, money transfer companies like J-Pay and any other venue where we are giving financial support to the system.
This plan should be implemented throughout the year 2018, during the months of February, April, June, August, October and December. In the meantime, help with the process of building awareness of the scope of economics as it relates to the finance and operation of prisons and the critical, fundamental role that we play in it.
We cannot ever expect to gain respect for our rights when our actions demonstrate that we are mentally chained to privileges. Before we will ever gain our freedom, we have to sacrifice all privileges. Otherwise, our captors will always have these privileges to control and manipulate us with.
It is time for us to turn up the intensity in our organizing. Our families and our children need those resources far more than the people we are turning them over to. Brothers and Sisters, don’t worry about what the naysayers say, and don’t allow a slave’s actions to dictate your own. One thing you can be sure of is that you are not alone because I, Bennu Hannibal, will be sacrificing with you here in Alabama.
Changing old habits and developing new ones takes time. That’s why this campaign is developed to stretch out for a full year. Get ready, get organized, and take action to Redistribute the Pain in 2018.
Bennu Hannibal Ra Sun, Free Alabama Movement
Send our brother some love and light: Melvin Ray, 163343, Donaldson CF Seg. Unit Q-8, 100 Warrior Lane, Bessemer AL 35023.