Prisons and Plantations — what’s the difference?

Not much, really.

The addition of the 13th Amendment caused many people, myself included, to believe that slavery in the United States had been abolished. It wasn’t until I read Angela Davis’ Are Prisons Obsolete? that I learned the truth — that slavery does not exist “except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.” With this in mind, it’s quite easy to see why the idea of prisons and plantations seem to bleed together.

It should come as no shock that after 1865 it became increasingly easy for African-Americans to wind up in prisons. Black Codes were revised from the previous Slave Codes to create crimes that only black people could commit in order to ensure that their freedom was legally restricted; to ensure that they were criminalized and ordered to penal labor — a slave once again.

“Everything needs to change, so everything can stay the same.”

When thinking about prisons, you tend to associate them with a lack of freedom and the inability to do as you wish. Your basic human rights are taken away, it’s made nearly impossible to communicate with your loved ones, and you are made to live under someone else’s schedule so that they can profit off of you. And when you really think about it, aren’t all the points mentioned things you associate with slave plantations?

Obviously, the biggest similarity between prisons and slave plantations is that they are both founded and thrive off of racism in the United States. Look at it this way: racism is generally ensuring that the dominant race has and maintains power over the minority races. I don’t think I really need to go into how slavery, the act of keeping human beings as property, was racist, but arguing that prisons are a racist institution could use more support.

As stated before, there were crimes created for the sole purpose of ensuring that African-Americans were criminalized once slavery was “abolished.” Once that happened, prison population went from majority white to majority black, and white people often committed crimes while in blackface so that their own reputation would not be harmed. In modern times it is still easy for people to end up arrested and with harsher punishments than usual simply because of the color of their skin. Prisons have ways of making sure that their population, which is majority POC, end up back in prison. Communicating with people outside of prison is made to be extremely difficult, and sometimes families are unable to meet the financial obligations that come with a couple of phones calls. This in turn causes feelings of isolation within the inmates and can be detrimental to their success once they are released. So it makes sense when you say that prisons maintain their power over inmates, with more than half of them being POC, by ensuring that they will return once they are released.

More similarities between prisons and plantations are the people who are confined there. Prison population is as follows:

  • Latinos, 35.2%
  • African-Americans, 30%
  • Whites, 29.2%

Two-thirds of the people in prison are people of color, which makes sense because as Angela Davis states, POC are often what is imagined when people hear “criminals” and “evildoers.” This, of course, is nothing compared to the fact that almost all of those who were forced to work on plantations were African-American, but it still important to consider that POC are in the majority of prison population.

In the cases of prisons and plantations, it is obvious that the people who are “in charge” are the ones that benefit the greatest. Slave owners were able to maintain their plantations with no extra costs, producing a great profit. The same goes for prisons. Prison labor is extremely cheap, with prisoners earning a little less than $5 per day. On the flip side, private prison companies such as the Corrections Corporations of America (CCA) are a $70 billion industry. In both instances, the ones who benefit feel completely justified with their actions because they either: A. own the people who work there or B. are simply punishing those who have committed a crime, no matter how small or large it was.

It is time that Americans realize that the Prison Industrial Complex is no better than the slave plantations of the 1800’s. Of course, it may be hard to abolish prisons since many believe that society benefits from them, not seeing the connection with slavery and labor they may have. But really, is it so hard to provide people with basic rights?