Modern day police in the United States evolved primarily, from slave patrols in the South and city guards in the North; both were concerned with the control and containment of Black people. The comparison of police officers to slave catchers goes against the grain of what most people reflexively think about police. Thus, it can be difficult for some to critically analyze them and their function. The common cultural image of police is that they are our benefactors doing the dangerous job of protecting us. This, among other notions, is not as true as one might think. For example, according to the 2010 national census of fatal occupational injuries, garbage collectors have a more dangerous job than police officers. Inversely, Garbage men pose no threat to the rest of us. To the contrary, they provide an essential public service. Police officers on the other hand, kill almost 5 five times as often as they are killed [see here].
The fact of the matter is, any benefit that society, particularly poor communities and Black or Immigrant communities, derives from police officers is in spite of their unofficial mandate as modern day slave catchers. Their job is to preserve society through the method of law enforcement. Law ENFORCEMENT. Nevermind if the law is fair, just, moral, or equitable — its the law! For example, if you’re poor in this country, you don’t have a legal right to a job, a home, or food, or money, but you can be arrested for taking it (theft) or even asking for it (pan-handling/solicitation). Kristian Williams, in his magnificent book Our Enemies in Blue: Police and Power in America writes,
“To the degree that a social order works to the advantage of some and the disadvantage of others, its preservation will largely consist of protecting the interests of of the first group from the demands of the second. And that, as we shall see, is what the police do…… The history of America’s police is not the story of democracy so much as it is the story of the prevention of democracy.” He also quotes James Baldwin from his essay Fifth Avenue, Uptown: A Letter From Harlem; “Their very presence is an insult, and it would be, even if they spent their entire day feeding gumdrops to children. They represent the force of the White world and that world’s real intentions are, simply, for that world’s criminal profit and ease, to keep the Black man corralled up here, in his place.”
The “place” of Black people in this country may change from era to era, but essentially, their place is to serve the interest of the “first group” that Williams referred to. That may mean total assimilation in which case a loyal Black person can be a great asset to the country (even be president) or, in the alternative, even a hapless illiterate Black body will not go to waste, it will go to prison, where it can be useful. The premise of the argument contained in this writing is that there is a direct correlation between the resource of Black bodies on the plantation 150 years ago and in the prisons today. The 13th Amendment to the United States Constitution provides the bridge for this connection. It states that, “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”
If read critically, it is apparent that slavery in America was never abolished. To the contrary, it was nationalized and regulated. Today, slavery may not be an institution that any entrepreneur can take advantage of , but it is still present and prevalent as a government run operation. Enslavement is no longer a strict question of racial status, but civic status; who is the criminal. Those designated as criminals are subject to slavery and, quite perversely, the body with the authority to designate who is or isn’t a criminal is the same body that stands to benefit from the enslavement of the “duly convicted”. On the basis of this analogy, police is to slave catcher as criminal is to slave. Police are deployed into the community to catch ‘the bad guy’; upon capture, the bad guy, if “duly convicted”, will be subject to slavery. The quintessential element of slavery is the ownership of labor and in prisons, just as on plantations, the labor of the captive is appropriated.
Although the institution has been nationalized, in recent decades, the prevalence of prison privatization has steadily increased. This has created an industry with extremely perverse incentives. Whereas slavery and profitability take a back seat to social control and punishment within government administered prisons, they enjoy primacy within private prisons. In other words, private prisons are primarily concerned with the profits of their stockholders and increasing their bottom line year after year. This can only be done by obtaining a growing stream of human capital and reducing the ratio of profit to expenditure as much as possible. This fact is not lost on these companies.
In its 2010 Annual Report, the Correctional Corporation of America (CCA) is very explicit about where its interests lie.
The demand for our facilities and services could be adversely affected by the relaxation of enforcement efforts, leniency in conviction or parole standards and sentencing practices or through the decriminalization of certain activities that are currently proscribed by our criminal laws. For instance, any changes with respect to drugs and controlled substances or illegal immigration could affect the number of persons arrested, convicted, and sentenced, thereby potentially reducing demand for correctional facilities to house them.
A recent report by the Sentencing Project, Too Good to be True: Private Prisons in America, outlines the proliferation of private prisons over the past decade. According to the report, in 2010, the total number of prisoners in private prisons was 1.6 million, up 17% since 1999. Much more staggering is the increased use of private prisons by the federal government, up 784% over the same period. The use of private prisons is not entirely new, but the practice took modern form and ballooned in the 1980s commensurate with the incarceration boom that resulted from the ‘War on Drugs’. In the 30 years between 1979 and 2009, the prison population grew from 450,000 to 2.3 million. Today, the United States imprisons more people than any other country in the history of the world.
Last year, Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, noted that there are more Black men are in jail today than there were enslaved in 1850. There are almost 10 times as many Black people in prison now as there were in 1954 at the time of Brown v. Board of Education. At this rate, 1 and 3 Black males born today can expect to go to jail in their lifetime [see here]. These Black men (and women), just like their enslaved ancestors, are human resources, feeding a malicious cycle where the incarceration industry is reaping big profits.
Two companies in particular run over half of the private prisons; CCA and GEO Group (previously known as the Wackenhut Corporation). In 2010, they made almost $3 billion and have established themselves as prime stock. The price of stock in either company comparable in price to companies such as Citigroup, Dell, Yahoo, Intel, and Dunkin’ Donuts/Baskin Robbins. Notable over the past six months are the efforts of the National Prison Divestment Campaign. As pointed out on their blog, “Since the divestment campaign began on May 12, 2011. CCA’s stock value dropped from $26.02 to $20.67, a 21% drop at year’s end. GEO Group stock has taken a similar plunge, from a high of $26.12 on May 12 to $16.75 on December 31, 2011, a drop of over 34%.” God-willing, this trend will continue. The article goes on to say that, “These for-profit prisons have a long history of lobbying for laws that increase penalties and incarcerations for immigrants and people of color, supporting controversial bills like the 3 strikes laws and minimum mandatory sentencing that has created massive profits for these corporations and their investors.”
Just a decade ago, private prisons were a dying industry awash in corruption and mired in lawsuits, particularly Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), the nation’s largest private prison operator. Today, these companies are booming once again, yet the lawsuits and scandals continue to pile up. Meanwhile, more and more evidence shows that compared to publicly run prisons, private jails are filthier, more violent, less accountable, and contrary to what privatization advocates peddle as truth, do not save money. In fact, more recent findings suggest that private prisons could be more costly.
In a recently published report, “Banking on Bondage: Mass Incarceration and Private Prisons,” the American Civil Liberties Union examines the history of prison privatization and finds that private prison companies owe their continued and prosperous existence to skyrocketing immigration detention post September 11 as well as the firm hold they have gained over elected and appointed officials.
This all leads back to the point of the de facto function that police play in society which is actually nothing new. After the 13 Amendment was ratified, States began to develop new laws, later known as Black Codes, to utilize the exception clause contained in the Amendment. For example, Black men and women who were now “free”, were targeted and arrested for such benign offences as ‘vagrancy’; in other words, wandering around without a job. And what were the jobs available to Blacks in an emancipated world? Plantation labor, housework, etc.; basically all of the same things they were doing the day before. The prison population exploded during this period and the practice of ‘convict leasing’ became ubiquitous.
Today, there are no ‘Black Codes’ or laws that explicitly target populations of people of color. However, though the explicit intent may be one thing, the effect may be decidedly different; and the effect, the objective reality, is what matters. According to the International Covenant to Eliminate All Forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD), Each State Party shall take effective measures to review governmental, national and local policies, and to amend, rescind or nullify any laws and regulations which have the effect [emphasis added] of creating or perpetuating racial discrimination wherever it exists.
Moreover, ‘criminal’ is often a euphemism for ‘Black’. Similarly, the ‘War on Drugs’ is a war on the Black community, just as the immigration laws are an attack on the Immigrant community. Sadly, the victims of these wars are not only prisoners of war, but spoils of war. At the forefront of these wars are the local police and though they may not fancy themselves as slave catchers, the reality is a tragedy that belies the motto, “serve and protect”. To be fair, some police have taken notice of the disconnect between what they signed up for and what their actually doing. One notable group is Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP). Unfortunately, officers with that kind of integrity are discouraged, to say the least, from saying or doing anything about the injustice that they witness. In some cases, they have even been fired for such treason.
Last year, The Global Commission on Drug Policy (report here) declared the War on Drugs a failure worldwide. In no place is that more evident than in the Unites States. At some point this year, the US may hit the $5 trillion mark for the amount of money spent on the drug war and all there is to show for it is a booming incarceration industry and the largest drug market in the world. Meanwhile countless communities and lives have been ruined by this “war” that is little more than a racketeering scam. If police really want to protect the communities that they serve, they would stop stealing people as part of an obviously, if not deliberately, unjust and racist agenda. Unfortunately, as long as the 13th Amendment mandates that they serve this function, it stands to reason that their hands are tied and ours are shackled.