America’s racist penal system is slavery by another name

(Originally published: August, 2014 in The Daily Telegraph, UK)

“The emotions between the races could never be pure; even love was tarnished by the desire to find in the other some element that was missing in ourselves. Whether we sought out our demons or salvation, the other race would always remain just that: menacing, alien, and apart.” ― Barack Obama, Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance

When an unarmed black teenager, Michael Brown, was shot by in Ferguson, Missouri, by a police officer, St. Louis was the scene of violent protests. Remarkable and alarming pictures have been beamed across the world of police violence, siege-like militarism and a stand-off that recalls the 1960’s Civil Rights era. However, for those who have been aware of the barometer of American civil rights struggles, this is unsurprising. What is surprising is that this hasn’t bubbled up before.

Even under America’s first bi-racial black president, America is a mostly segregated society. In New Jersey in the 80s and 90s where I grew up, people for the most part had either white friends or black friends. High school lunch tables were codified by colour. The America I knew had a massive race problem and I, as an Iranian, neither white nor black, experienced enough racism to know I couldn’t change it from within. So I left America in 1996, tired of the inequalities, particularly around race and social justice, and certain that a life as a free-thinking filmmaker wasn’t possible, certainly not when you had to wed yourself to a corporation in order to have health care.

This year, now a UK Citizen, I am returning to America to start filming a documentary looking at the issue of race in America through the prism of the prison system. After visiting a prison in Louisiana where I saw, mostly black, men picking cotton in fields for up to 13 cents per hour while the predominantly white guards, armed and on horseback with riffles, mostly white, watched over as they worked for between 3 cents per hour to 13 cents per hour. Unknown to most, slavery is still legal in the US under the 13th Amendment. Yes, you read that right, slavery is legal in America, it was outlawed “except as a punishment for crime.”

I am returning with a camera focused on who profits from crime in America. My new feature documentary From the Plantation to the Penitentiary, looks at the privitised prison system as a sanitized slave system. In it I ask whether America heading towards another race war? Some of the people who I have pitched this to, thought this was fanciful agit pop. But what we have seen in Missouri this week shows what is bubbling under the surface. 18-year-old Michael Brown, like Eric Garner, Ezell Ford and John Crawford III, all men who have been killed by the police, is another victim of the race wars in America… Many people ask, why are there so many issues in America around race? The tragedy of what is happening in America is that this is the legacy of slavery.

Although black people make up just 13 percent of the overall population, they accounted for 40 percent of US prisoners in 2011. One in 10 black men in their thirties is in jail or prison on any given day[1]. Michelle Alexander points out in her book The New Jim Crow that more black men are in “prison or jail, on probation or on parole than were enslaved in 1850.” Slavery never ended in America, it just changed its face.

Why does a country seemingly so concerned with liberty, have such a high rate of incarceration (2.3 million and counting)? Answer: it pays to imprison. Prisons are increasingly owned by corporations that profit from having people incarcerated. These private companies are either paid by the state, or they put the inmates to work thus creating a cheap and constant work force. If a product is “Made in America”, chances are it was made in a US prison. 93 per cent of household paintbrushes are made in US prisons, 30 percent of consumer electronics. Companies such as Victoria’s Secret, Walmart, Starbucks, Microsoft and Nintendo have products made in prisons (often via subcontractors) and states attract business to their state boasting about large prison populations who can be put to work as cheap labour. Remember, the first prison in America was formulated by a Texas governor in the year that slavery was abolished (after all, who was going to bring all that cotton and crops back in?). This lead to the chain gangs and Jim Crow laws which continued to criminalise and incarcerate black people in America.

Ironically prisons don’t seem to do much to reduce crime. Studies suggest that very substantial increases in imprisonment will produce only a modest reduction in crime. Worse, there is evidence that prison acts only to increase the likelihood that people reoffend after release.[2] Locking up people doesn’t make ours a safer society but like the historical form of slavery abolished 150 years ago, prison-labour is a for-profit business for America, made off the backs of mostly African-Americans (and increasingly Latinos and other migrants). In terms of race, black communities have still lived with the shadows of slavery and America has never formerly broken its relationship with it either.

In light of the events in Missouri, I’m asking whether America needs to re-examine it’s past in order to be able to move forward. Is America heading towards another Civil War? It’s time that the past was confronted, and that race is dealt with in an open and honest way. Missouri is not the beginning, nor will it be the end…. As Dr Martin Luther King, Jr said:

“Three hundred years of humiliation, abuse and deprivation cannot be expected to find voice in a whisper.”

Post-script. It is also important to know that the same private prisons are arriving in Europe… in the UK, for example, there are 14 private prisons by 2012 accounting for 14 percent of the prison population, while in 2000, it was roughly only 8 percent. (And in the case of immigration detainees, the number is vastly increasing). This is a global issue and America can only serve as a cautionary tale.

[1] From the website of the NAACP

[2] Weatherburn, Law and Order in Australia: Rhetoric and Reality (2004) p 123–128.

Originally published here in The Daily Telegraph (20 August, 2014):

Tina Gharavi, Storyteller & Associate Professor, Newcastle University
Twitter: Gharavi
For more info about the project see:

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