From Slaves to Prisoners:
Assata Shakur and the Prison-Industrial Complex
By Lorenzo Tarver
The backbone of slavery runs strong today within our prison industrial-complex. Even though, slavery was abolished in the United States in 1865, it amazes me that in this modern day and age, slavery is much alive. In fact, slavery was written into the United States Constitution under the 13th Amendment Sections, 1 and 2. “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude except as a punishment for crime where of the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction,” affirms the above stated fact. Section 2 follows, “Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.” (Faragher) As the 13th Amendment unveils, slavery never ended after the Civil War, but was written in the Constitution as a law, as long as a person is convicted of a crime. Furthermore, it is imperative that we read between the lines in order for us to be aware that this amendment allows heinous crimes to be committed just for cheap or free corporate labor.
Sometimes innocent people are caught in the crossfire to satisfy this ever-growing monster. In Assata Shakur’s autobiography, she tells the story of her horrible journey through the U.S. justice system. On May 2, 1973 Assata Shakur, born Joanne Chesimard, was wrongfully accused for the alleged murder of a New Jersey state trooper, named Werner Foerster. The duration of her incarceration lasted about 4 years. She was consistently juggled through court cases, dealing with some of the most outrageous allegations, including bank robbery. Assata was never convicted of any charges; however, Assata’s treatment was inhumane and un-American. She was left in solitary confinement for months at a time, harassed by police, and beaten almost to paralysis.
Like many of us, including myself, Assata didn’t receive knowledge of the existence of slavery within our country, until she was an adult. During Assata imprisonment, she was ordered by one of the guards to snap string beans. Assata was upset and rebellious; therefore, she refused to snap the string beans and divulged to the guard that she was not a slave. The guard responded by saying, “Look up your rights.” Later, Assata couldn’t believe it, but the guard was telling the truth. After reading the 13th Amendment Assata stated, “Well, that explains a lot of things. That explains why jails and prisons all over the country are filled to the brim with black and third world people, why so many black people can’t find a job on the streets and are forced to survive the best way they know how.” (Shakur pg. 64) Assata continued to say, “Once you’re in prison, there are plenty of jobs and, if you don’t want to work, they beat you and throw you in the hole. If every state had to pay workers to do the jobs prisoners are forced to do, the salaries would amount to billions. License plates alone would amount to millions. Prisons are profitable businesses, a legal way of perpetuating slavery, and continue to survive in our communities today, especially within our dense urban societies. When Jimmy Carter was governor of Georgia, he brought a black woman from prison to clean the state house and baby sit for Amy. In every state more and more prisons are being built and even more are on the drawing board. Who are they for? They certainly aren’t planning to put white people in them. Prisons are part of this government genocidal war against black and third world people.” (Shakur ) In my opinion, the prison industrial- complex is synonymous with the Willie Lynch Papers.
Throughout all my research information, there was evidence to support needed reforms within our prison system. Once I was made aware that slavery is still alive within the prison industrial- complex, that it is able to propagate because it is protected by federal law; I knew that all prison systems necessitated reform. As I mentioned earlier, private industries are able to capitalize on prisoners, because it is legal under the 13th Amendment. Therefore, reforming the prison systems would have to start from the ground up. The first step should begin with the law which protects such a wrong, which is the 13th Amendment. This wouldn’t be an easy task, and would take an act of Congress, if not God. The reformed Amendment would pull all corporations out of the prison systems. Also, it would allow prisons to serve their purpose and actually rehabilitate inmates, instead of keeping them in a system that keeps them incarcerated indefinitely. Prisons should be institutions of corrections and not used as corporations meal ticket for cheap labor. By reforming the prison system we could; stop industries from profiting from inmates, refocus on education, and put tax payer’s money back into urban communities. Instead of creating more prison’s to profit private business, the taxpayer’s money can go towards education. If more money was put into our public schools, children would receive a better education. Children from urban areas would learn at an early stage how important their education really is. There would be better, updated, books in all class rooms nationwide, and teacher could teach more reasonable size classes. Teachers could receive a higher salary which would be more of an incentive to reach our children. Remember, the prison systems are feeding off of the poor and uneducated. If the prison were reformed, it would be a waste of taxpayer’s money to maintain institutions that weren’t being used or filled. Even though, I believe reform is necessary; I also believe that real criminals should be punished for the purpose of keeping order.
How does crime in the U.S. decrease but the number of prisoners and prisons increase? This has been the case in the U.S. since the 70’s. However, it is becoming such a strong and powerful institution, nobody is safe; the government might eventually start imprisoning citizens for jaywalking. I feel that it may get a lot worse, before it gets better. Eventually, America will have to stand up to this type of capitalism, and revolt against it.
Change must occur immediately to save our urban communities from the tyranny of Corporate America. Assata spoke on the dangers of this system in the 80’s and is being proven today that more and more prisons are being built, and education is being taken away. A figure from the U.S. Department of Justice (shown above) shows that from 1980 to the year 2000 the incarceration rate jumped from 150,000 inmates to 500,000. “Increasingly punitive sentencing guidelines and the privatization ofprison-related industries and services account for much of this growth. Those who enter and leave this system are increasingly Black or Latino, poorly educated, lacking vocational skills, struggling with drugs and alcohol, and disabled. Few correctional facilities mitigate the educational and/or skills deficiencies of their inmates and most inmates will return home to communities that are ill equipped to house or rehabilitate them.” (Golembesky) If the prison systems were reformed, crime would continue on the decline and more jobs would be created. More entrepreneurs would be needed; small businesses may stand a better chance in this new economy. Once again, America’s natural rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness would be restored.
People may say, “The system is flawed, but we should leave it how it is”, I strongly disagree. The prison system is such a lucrative business that it will transform honest working Americans, into the most vile criminal. I believe Assata Shakur was innocent, and only a victim of being in the wrong place at the right time. That same incident can happen at any time and any place to anyone, and even more if you are a minority. In 2002, I was arrested for prowling. I was in a neighborhood having a conversation with my cousin, when a resident called the police and said we trespassing on her property. That wasn’t true, but we arrested all the same. The situation could have been worse; somebody could have been murdered in the same area at the same time. We would have been prime suspects, and convicted of a crime that we were oblivious to. I don’t want to continue to live in a society were innocent people are made into slaves, because frankly, nobody wants to get their hands dirty.
Do not be fooled! The prison industrial-complex replaced slavery, slavery is real and still operating strong, and the 13th Amendment protects slavery as a punishment for criminals. I believe that reforming the current system of things isn’t impossible, but a movement must occur. At the rate that the government is imprisoning people, there will eventually be nothing left but the rich upper class, and the prisoner class... Sound familiar? America needs to awaken from its slumber and overturn this oppressive system. If the uprising is successful, I believe it would be more profitable for tax payer’s money to go towards education, and the communities, to uplift America in a positive direction for ALL.
Faragher, John M. Out of Many: A History of the American People. Upper Saddle River: Prentice Hall, 2009.
Golembesky, Cynthia. "Criminal (In)Justice in the City and Its Associated Health Consequences." American Journal of Public Health (2008): Vol. 98 pg. 185.
Shakur, Assata. Assata: An Autobiography. Chicago: Lawrence Hill Books, 1987.