The sound of chains, heavy and oppressive, kicked off Kendrick Lamar's performance at the 2016 Grammy Awards. There was nothing subtle about it — he was reminding America that racial oppression is, and always has been, a primary factor of the U.S. prison system. Lamar's performance was a bold representation of the prison-industrial complex.
For those who need a refresher, "the prison-industrial complex" refers to the overlapping interests of the government and private companies in mass incarceration, and the fundamental relationship between punishment and commerce. In America, imprisoned individuals are forced to work for corporations. And the way in which they are thrown into this labor echoes the kind of slavery we learned about in our history books — the kind of slavery Lamar depicted at the Grammys.
Though problems with the system extend much farther back, the prison-industrial complex as we know it was born in the '80s, when the War on Drugs was enacted in full force under President Reagan. Between 1980 and 1984, FBI anti-drug funding went from $8 million to $95 million. At the same time, funding for drug treatment and prevention was significantly reduced. Inner-city, underserved communities of color were targeted. Black men and women were sent to prison at alarmingly fast rates, and for nonviolent crimes.
Fast-forward a few decades later and our country is looking at mass incarceration. We send more people to prison than any other nation on Earth, and people of color make up most of that incarcerated population. Here are five ways the prison-industrial complex functions as a new, legal form of slavery.
1. Incarcerated Individuals (Who Are Mostly People Of Color) Are Legally The Property Of The Government
In 1865, the Thirteenth Amendment was passed, abolishing slavery. There was a significant loophole in the Amendment, though: It stated that slavery and involuntary servitude are illegal, "except as punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted." In other words, individuals who are imprisoned are technically considered the property of the state or federal government. Sound familiar?
2. Prisoners Are Leased To Private Companies For Mandatory Labor
As early as the start of the 19th century, states were leasing out imprisoned individuals "to private bidders to be housed and worked as slaves," as Harvard professor and Director of the Prison Studies Project Kaia Stern writes in her latest book, Voices From American Prisons: Faith, Education, and Healing. This labor was specifically used for production, and the same thing still happens today.
3. Prisoners Work And Live In Inhumane Conditions
It's not uncommon for individuals behind bars — including women — to be shackled in chains during labor. The tasks they are given are often dangerous, and their safety is rarely taken into account. They work for long hours, sometimes with no end in sight. "Convict leasing" is said to actually be better for the companies than slavery was for slave owners, because they don't even have to worry about maintaining the health of their workers.
For example, after the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, BP decided to exploit incarcerated folks in Louisiana prisons to take care of the mess they created. They leased out work crews and paid them little. Out of all the states in America, Louisiana boasts the highest incarceration rate, and 70 percent of their prisoners are black.
When I spoke with Stern, she reminded me that popular media often fails to cover these topics, which is precisely why we are not familiar with the violence and "the soul-crushing isolation that is the everyday life for millions of people." Why is it kept from us, though? Because there is much to gain financially from the sweat and toil of people of color, and no one seems to want to hear about it.
4. Prisoners Are Paid Next To Nothing While Corporations Profit Huge Amounts Off Of Their Labor
To say that prisoners make less than the minimum wage wouldn't even begin to crack the surface. Many of them work full-time for only pennies a day. There are some who make up to $2 an hour, but overall, Stern says, "the prison population receives 'slave wages.'" The imprisoned population is vulnerable and unprotected. They have no means of forming a union, which would allow them to fight for basic workers rights and fairer wages, and they cannot vote to affect change.
5. The System Dehumanizes Incarcerated Individuals
As someone who has worked in the penal system for 20 years, Stern writes about prison as "a totalizing institution that represents modern systems of domination and social control." The prison-industrial complex turns people into tools used to bring profit to huge corporations. There's no care for reform or justice — the two things that are supposed to rule our criminal justice system. Denying people their basic humanity in this way was precisely what we saw in slavery all those years ago; it's just executed in a different way today.