American Slavery, Reinvented

The Thirteenth Amendment forbade slavery and involuntary servitude, “except as punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.”

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Crops stretch to the horizon. Black bodies pepper the landscape, hunched over as they work the fields. Officers on horseback, armed, oversee the workers.

To the untrained eye, the scenes in Angola for Life: Rehabilitation and Reform Inside the Louisiana State Penitentiary, an Atlantic documentary filmed on an old Southern slave-plantation-turned-prison, could have been shot 150 years ago. The imagery haunts, and the stench of slavery and racial oppression lingers through the 13 minutes of footage.

The film tells two overlapping stories: One is of accomplishment against incredible odds, of a man who stepped into the most violent maximum-security prison in the nation and gave the men there—discarded and damned—what society didn’t: hope, education, and a moral compass. Burl Cain, the warden of Angola Prison, which is in Louisiana, has created a controversial model for rehabilitation. Through work and religion, they learn to help each other, and try to become better fathers to their children on the outside. Perhaps the lucky few even find redemption.

But there is a second storyline running alongside the first, which raises disquieting questions about how America treats those on the inside as less than fully human. Those troubling opening scenes of the documentary offer visual proof of a truth that America has worked hard to ignore: In a sense, slavery never ended at Angola; it was reinvented.

Some viewers of the video might be surprised to learn that inmates at Angola, once cleared by the prison doctor, can be forced to work under threat of punishment as severe as solitary confinement. Legally, this labor may be totally uncompensated; more typically inmates are paid meagerly—as little as two cents per hour—for their full-time work in the fields, manufacturing warehouses, or kitchens. How is this legal? Didn’t the Thirteenth Amendment abolish all forms of slavery and involuntary servitude in this country?

Read more at The Atlantic

Why the American Right Attacks the Poor

19th century engraving Via New York Public Library Digital Collection. Image from Wikipedia Commons.

The defining philosophical argument being made on the American political right today should not be surprising. And that is because the need to make that argument is also not new.

In every society in human history, in which so many have been forced to live in states of perpetual poverty, violence and despair–in the midst of obscene opulence and privilege for a very few–there has been a compelling need to explain the relationship of these facts.

There has also always been a need for a counter narrative to be created and promulgated in order to deflect attention from the most obvious causes of social and economic injustices.

Poverty has often been explained as a consequence of individual moral failures. And the exploitation of the weak and the poor by the powerful and wealthy has also been denied as a possible cause of human suffering in society.

But an autopsy of every historic incidence of social decay and human degradation has revealed the same shockingly obvious and simple truth: that it is the poverty of the many that has always subsidized the wealth of a privileged few.

© 2013 by Paul Kennedy