||Susan M. Recinella, Clinical Psychologist for mentally ill adults, and
Catholic Lay Minister to Families of the Executed|
Is Prison Privatization a New Form of Economic Servitude? – Part I
By: Dale Recinella
We return to addressing the six pastoral letters on the criminal justice system issued by our Catholic Bishops in the South.
The second letter, Wardens from Wall Street: Prison Privatization, deals with the delicate issue of mixing profit motives with the incarceration of American citizens. In our prior installments we looked at the inherent problem of mixing profit motives with management and care of vulnerable, voiceless people, dispelled the current benevolent American privatization myth, and explored the insidious connection between prison privatization and large, influential campaign contributions.
Today we turn to an equally disturbing issue: the connection between private prison profits and the incarceration of African-American citizens, a perspective brought into relief by comparison of historical data from the post-Civil War period to our current time. Dr. Michael Hallett, Chair and Professor of Criminal Justice and Director of the Center for Criminal Justice Policy Research at the University of North Florida, has been honored for his research on the criminal justice system in exactly this area. His book, Private Prisons in America: A Critical Race Perspective, presents his historical findings and compares them to the statistics today.
As Catholics, we do not accept Dr. Hallett’s personal views on class conflict. After setting those views aside, however, a reader of the historical and current statistics and studies presented in his book finds data-based evidence of many of the concerns expressed by our Bishops of the South, especially with respect to race, poverty and prison privatization. Regular readers of this column have already learned the historical connections between the death penalty of slavery and the modern American death penalty. It should not be a surprise that similar historical connections exist with respect to the criminal justice system at large.
In addressing the history of “for-profit imprisonment” in America, Dr. Hallett focuses squarely upon the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution which abolished involuntary servitude (slavery) except as punishment for crime. He documents that immediately after the Civil War the South faced a massive labor shortage. Meanwhile, vast numbers of African-American men were to be found still living on the plantations where they had been enslaved and not yet sure where to go. The solution, he says, was crafted in the shadow of the 13th Amendment’s approval of economic servitude as punishment.
First, the laws were changed to redefine “previously petty crimes as felonies after the Civil War, thus elevating the penalties for vagrancy, loitering and petty theft.” Long prison terms replaced small fines and short stints in jail. Then, the Convict Lease System was deployed. Many freed blacks were imprisoned and subjected to the Convict Lease system only to work the very same plantations where they had previously been slaves. Dr. Hallett quotes the famous W.E.B. Du Bois:
Throughout the South, laws were immediately passed authorizing public officials to lease the labor of convicts to the highest bidder. The lessee then took charge of the convicts—worked them as he wished under the nominal control of the state. Thus a new slavery and slave trade was established.
Dr. Hallett points out that these changes in laws created an artificial “black crime problem.” Whereas before emancipation, almost all prisoners in southern penitentiaries were white, after emancipation, almost all the prisoners were black. In Alabama, for example, the prisons went from 99% white to over 97% black. This was not atypical of the Southern post-Civil War experience. It was in this environment that the prospect of private profit from the misery of incarceration became socially acceptable.
Dr. Hallett shows that the practice of private profit from prisons suddenly rose to the fore again with the advent of the new “black crime problem” of the 1980s. Private prisons, as a group, now comprise the fourth largest prison system in the U.S. In our next installment we will address this historical comparison and ask the tough questions provided by Catholic teaching on Social Justice.
First published: The Florida Catholic, August 31, 2007
© 2007 Dale S. Recinella & The Florida Catholic.
Used with permission. All rights reserved.
No further reproduction or republication without prior written permission.
I Was In Prison
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This ezine is targeted for people involved in prison ministry or in stopping the death penalty, we think you will find helpful information for people who are undecided about capital punishment, for those who have never experienced the inside of a jail or prison, and for those who feel called to participate through prayer and adoration.
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Dale S. Recinella
, Catholic Lay Chaplain, Florida Death Row and Solitary Confinement
Susan M. Recinella
, Clinical Psychologist for mentally ill adults, and
Catholic Lay Minister to Families of the Executed