Slavery is being practiced by the system under the color of law. Slavery 400 years ago, slavery today, it’s the same thing, but with a new name. They’re making millions and millions of dollars enslaving blacks, poor whites, and others — people who don’t even know they’re being railroaded.
–— Political Prisoner Ruchel Magee.
This “land of opportunity” now boasts a prison population of nearly 2.4 million, higher than any other nation, ¾ of a million more than China, which has four times the population of the U.S. California alone has over 160,000 inmates — more than France, Germany, Great Britain, Japan and the Netherlands COMBINED. These five countries have a total population eleven times that of California. They are no less racist than the U.S. but have a different policy in treating non-violent offenders.
According to a U.S. Justice Department Report, as of this year, 7 million people are in prison, on probation or on parole. That means 1 in every 32 Americans is in the system. (http://www.usdoj.gov/) Seventy percent of all prisoners in the U.S. are black or Latino.
This massive imprisonment of millions is part of U.S. rulers’ efforts to control the working class and especially the potential rebellion of the most oppressed, the black and Latino workers. It occurs in the context of the virtual elimination of welfare under Clinton — when the big leap in the prison population took place — and the slashing of wages and jobs of all workers. Facing sharp economic crises and heightening inter-imperialist rivalry over energy supplies, U.S. rulers must exercise tight control over U.S. workers and try to win them to support — or at least not fight against — the rulers’ increased exploitation, even more intense racism and preparations for wider wars. As brother Ruchel Magee says (above), slavery today — of which this mass imprisonment in U.S.-style concentration camps (and the threat of it to millions more) is a part — has a new name. That name is fascism.
History of U.S. Prison Labor
Prison labor has its roots in slavery. After the 1861-1865 Civil War, a system of “hiring out prisoners” was introduced in order to continue slave labor. Freed slaves were charged with not carrying out their sharecropping commitments (cultivating someone else’s land in exchange for part of the harvest) or petty thievery — which were almost never proven — and were then “hired out” for cotton picking, mining and building railroads. From 1870 until 1910, 88% of “hired-out” convicts in Georgia were black. In Alabama, 93% of “hired-out” miners were black. In Mississippi, a huge prison farm similar to the old slave plantations replaced the system of hiring out convicts. The notorious Parchman plantation existed until 1972.
Prison labor is a pot of gold for the bosses: no strikes, unions, health benefits, unemployment insurance or workers’ compensation. This is one of the main reasons for such high incarceration rates in the U.S. At least 37 states have legalized the contracting out of prison labor by private corporations that mount their operations inside state prisons.
These companies contain the cream of U.S. corporate society: IBM, Boeing, Motorola, Microsoft, AT&T Wireless, Texas Instrument, Dell, Compaq, Honeywell, Hewlett-Packard, Nortel, Lucent Technologies, 3Com, Intel, Northern Telecom, Nordstrom’s, Revlon, Macy’s, Pierre Cardin, Target Stores and many more. All of these businesses reap extraordinary profits from the economic boom generated by prison labor. Just between 1980 and 1994, such profits rose from $392 million to $1.31 billion.
Inmates in state penitentiaries generally receive the minimum wage for their work, but in Colorado, they’re paid about $2 per hour, well below the minimum. And in privately-run prisons, they receive as little as 17¢/hr for a maximum of six hours a day, or about $20 per month. The highest-paying private prison is the Correctional Corporation of America (CCA) in Tennessee — prisoners receive 50¢/hr for what they call “highly skilled positions.” At those rates, it’s no surprise that inmates find federal prison pay “very generous” — possibly $1.25/hr, eight hours a day, and sometimes overtime.
The prison privatization boom began in the 1980s, under Reagan and Bush, Sr., but reached its height in the 1990s under Clinton, when Wall Street stocks were selling like hotcakes. Clinton’s cuts in the federal workforce led to the Justice Department contracting with private prison corporations for the incarceration of undocumented workers and high-security inmates.
Private prisons are the biggest business in the prison-industrial complex. About 18 corporations guard 10,000 prisoners in 27 states. The two largest are CCA and Wackenhut, which together control 75%. Private prisons receive a guaranteed payment for each prisoner, independent of the cost to maintain each one.
In these prisons, inmates may get their sentences reduced for “good behavior,” but for any infraction, 30 days are added, increasing profits for CCA. According to a study of New Mexico prisons, CCA inmates lost “good behavior time” at a rate eight times higher than those in state prisons.
The rulers find themselves in another risky situation: these same workers they oppress so viciously are among the ones the rulers need to arm to serve U.S. imperialism. They can be won to become part of the future red working-class army. One reason the rulers need someone like Obama is exactly to win black workers and youth (now reluctant to join the military) to fight in the many imperialist wars needed to stop U.S. rivals in the Middle East and elsewhere. A key role of our Party is to build internationalist and revolutionary consciousness among black, Latino and all workers so that imperialist war can be turned into class war for communism and an end to racism.
U.S. Prisons and Black Workers
In the U.S, black people comprise 13% of the population, but constitute half of the country’s prisoners. A tenth of all black men between 20 and 35 are in jail or prison; black workers are incarcerated at over eight times the white rate.
The effect on black communities is catastrophic: one in three male African-Americans in their 30s now has a prison record, as do nearly two-thirds of all black male high school dropouts. These numbers and rates are incomparably greater than anything achieved at the height of the Jim Crow era.
The number of young black men without jobs has climbed relentlessly, with only a slight pause during the economic bubble of the late 1990s. In 2000, 65% of black male high school dropouts in their 20’s were jobless — that is, unable to find work, not seeking it or incarcerated. By 2004, the share had grown to 72%, compared with 34% of white dropouts. Even when high school graduates were included, half of black men in their 20’s were jobless in 2004, up from 46% in 2000. Incarceration rates climbed in the 1990s and reached historic highs in the past few years. In 1995, 16% of black men in their 20’s who did not attend college were in jail or prison; by 2004, 21% were incarcerated. By their mid-30’s, 6 in 10 black men who had dropped out of school had spent time in prison.
Most of the states with a majority of black prisoners are in the South where cheap prison labor helps keep wages down for the growing auto, steel and other basic industries in that are becoming key for the U.S. war machine. However, Maryland, not generally viewed as a “southern state,” has the largest percentage of black prisoners — 77%. Wisconsin, with a tiny black population of 6%, has a black prison population of 48%. And Mississippi, the state with the largest black population, 36%, has a black prison population of 75%.