“Prisons are the new plantations!”

On mass incarceration as structural violence

by Rachel Bundang

This month at the Lane Center, we are hosting some events on the topic of race and incarceration. This is an issue that is emerging once again, not only because of the cumulative impact of incidents of police actions on persons and communities of color. More recently, it has come to light that Attorney General Jeff Sessions wishes to return to the practices of mandatory minimum sentencing from the drug wars of the 1980s and ‘90s which were so devastating to poor and minority communities.

As background to these issues, I wish to recommend the Oscar-nominated Netflix documentary 13th, by director Ava Duvernay (most recently known for the 2015 film Selma and the current television series Queen Sugar). The film is named for the the thirteenth amendment to our constitution: yes, it abolishes slavery, but it restricts the rights of those we consider “criminals.” From Angela Davis to Newt Gingrich and everyone in between, she interviews scholars, activists, advocates, and the incarcerated themselves, as well as their families, mapping out carefully and unflinchingly the ways that systemic, institutionalized racism, from the slavery era onward, and fear of black bodies in particular affect our justice system in the United States. She argues, in fact, that mass incarceration is itself a legalized extension of slavery, with specific impact on African-American men.

Periodically, throughout the film, with each presidential administration from Nixon onward, we see the exponential growth of the prison population as “law and order” policies and tactics get passed and enforced. Low-level crimes in particular are hit not only with mandatory minimum sentences, but also programs that reward police and prosecutorial toughness: plea bargains, stop and frisk, three strikes, and more. In addition, most convicts remain disenfranchised even after they have served their time and been released– they are denied the vote. Former prisoners also encounter difficulty finding work because their previous convictions make potential employers hesitant to take a chance on them. They are denied the opportunity to become self-sufficient, fully contributing members of society, and they risk recidivism in their efforts to sustain themselves given limited options. Families of the incarcerated are strained: prisons are often far away from home, phone calls can only be placed at price-gouging rates (for a literally captive population), and even upon release, they may be forbidden to have ex-convicts in residence with them in subsidized housing.

In a damning coda to the film, Duvernay also draws to our attention parallels between the mass incarceration of African-American men and the mass detention of (undocumented) immigrants. Companies such as the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) and conservative organizations such as the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) build their repressive policies and practices into our laws and profit from undeniable of structural violence. It is a condemnation of our past and present practices, and a call to do better by the poor and marginalized among us.

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