Worse Than Slavery Essays

A New Film Explores Ties Between Slavery and Mass Incarceration

Selma director Ava DuVernay’s new film, 13th, lays bare the connections between America’s history of slavery and its broken prison system.

The visionary filmmaker Ava DuVernay, director of 2014’s Selma, makes it clear in her long-awaited documentary, 13th, that the U.S. prison system is the nation’s greatest shame since slavery. More than that, she posits that it is actually a continuation of slavery. The systemic denial of freedom to African Americans is tied up in both institutions, and DuVernay new work makes those connections undeniable. In fact, her film argues convincingly that the country’s current incarceration state might be worse than slavery. Consider, as 13th informs us, that there are more African Americans ensnared in the criminal justice system today than the number enslaved in 1850.

Slavery would have been abolished in 1865 by the 13th Amendment (hence the film’s title), but for one small clause that all but grandfathered slavery back in for the sake of crime and punishment. That clause reads that slavery shall no longer exist in the U.S. “except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.“ America has been unshy about exploiting that clause to great profit ever since, and 13th duly chides the nation for it.

“I believe the system is broken and can’t be fixed through one-off solutions,” DuVernay tells CityLab. “It needs to be dismantled and we need to begin again, truly. There are improvements that can be made, but that’s what we’ve been doing  for generations now—little tweaks here and there that really don’t make for overall large-scale improvement.”

“There needs to be a complete overhaul [of the prison system] with dignity and humanity included in the plans.”

13th’s narrative spans decades, beginning with Reconstruction, when the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments were supposed to foster African Americans’ just transition from enslavement to citizenship. Instead, they were hunted and locked up for petty crimes like loitering and “vagrancy”—both criminalizations of the behaviors of migratory black people looking for freedom from terror in America’s wilderness.  

That period was followed by the Jim Crow era, where any African Americans caught trying to enjoy freedom by crossing the lines of segregation were swept into the expanding industries of imprisonment and convict leasing. By the 1950s and 1960s, African-American civil rights activists were made criminals simply for fighting for freedom. And by the 1980s, the U.S. began criminalizing en masse black people who turned to drugs, namely crack, many of them besieged by the realization that the search and fight for true freedom was futile.

The civil-rights law scholar and theologian Michelle Alexander brought many of these truths to the fore in her much-heralded book The New Jim Crow. She is featured prominently in 13th, discussing how mass incarceration has and hasn’t changed since her book was first published six years ago. Notably, what’s changed, she says, is the way that we talk about those who’ve been imprisoned.

“In my book, I use the term ‘ex-offender,’ and in just in the short time since the book has been released, that terminology is no longer used—and I would never use it again,” Alexander tells CityLab. “People who are formerly incarcerated talk about the importance of not referring to people as ‘felons’ or ‘ex-offenders,’ so that they’re not forever defined by something they once did in their lives. The language of ‘returning citizens’ and ‘formerly incarcerated people’ has not only entered the discourse, but has helped to shape my own understanding about what’s really at stake here.”

Many of those voices of the formerly incarcerated are included in 13th, and DuVernay is smart to enlist a broad spectrum of commentators to jury this issue. Among them are hard-nosed conservatives including Grover Norquist and Newt Gingrich. In the 1990s, Gingrich was a primary author of the GOP’s “Contract with America,” which included the Taking Back Our Streets Act—a package of tougher-than-tough-on-crime laws that committed Congress to expanding the prison industrial complex. Gingrich was also one corner of President Bill Clinton’s triangulation around crime policy. Together, Clinton and Gingrich produced laws that accelerated the already-explosive growth in mass black incarceration—a fact that haunts Hillary Clinton’s current presidential campaign.  

Today, both Clinton and Gingrich have backed away from their crime-law legacies, with Gingrich appearing rather contrite about his contribution to mass incarceration in 13th. “The objective reality is that no one who is white understands what it’s like to be black in America,” says Gingrich in the documentary.

DuVernay’s film makes sure viewers understand that America’s incriminating eyes haven’t just been fixed on poor African Americans who got hooked on drugs. She also shows the heavy surveillance placed upon African-American leaders who’ve dared to bring black people closer to freedom. This includesthe FBI spying on Martin Luther King, as well as Chicago police gunning down the young Black Panther leader Fred Hampton in the wee hours of night. Whether it wasFreedom Summer or the Black Power movement, 13th shows how America used jail as a way to try to quell such campaigns. (Stanley Nelson Jr.’s 2015 documentaryThe Black Panthers: Vanguard of a Revolution suggests that incarceration was one of the most consequential actions to doom that movement.)

The political commentator Van Jones, who’s partnering with Gingrich on criminal-justice reform, explains in one segment how the history of white leadership in the U.S. could be told without mentioning the FBI once, but that the same can’t be said for any black leaders. A filmmaker could create an entire documentary on that one point alone.

There are many terminal consequences of the U.S. incarceration system that are not covered extensively in 13th: prison gerrymandering, the rampant sexual abuse and rape that occurs in prisons, the travesty of solitary confinement. DuVernay tells CityLab that there’s a four-hour version of 13th that delves into other subjects. But for the 100-minute version that will debut Friday on Netflix and in select theaters, DuVernay says she aimed to stick to a strict thesis: How slavery has been extended and broadened over time thanks to that 13th Amendment loophole.

That loophole placed a black teenager in New York City named Kalief Browder in Rikers Island for nearly three years for a crime that he did not commit. He was unable to post bail after he was arrested in 2010, and he was unwilling to take a plea deal. 13th explains how the criminal justice system essentially punished Browder for not pleading outby trapping him in jail anyway. Bryan Stevenson, the crusading civil-rights lawyer who heads the Equal Justice Initiative, says in 13th that, if every defendant took their cases to trial, the entire criminal justice system would implode. This sounds like a worthwhile gamble under the weight of evidence presented in 13th.

When Browder finally was released from jail because prosecutors could not produce any evidence of wrongdoing, he had lost many of the mental and emotional faculties a person needs to enjoy freedom. At Rikers, Browder took one too many beatdowns from inmates and prison guards alike, and was remanded to more time in solitary confinement than his soul could bear. Unable to find freedom after his release, Browder committed suicide.

This is easily the most heartbreaking segment of 13th, even for those who might already be familiar with his story. Even more heartbreaking is knowing that there are likelythousands of Browders still trapped in Rikers.

“There are new services, approaches, behavioral therapies, and practices out there that would be a lot more humane and dignified, and would deliver much more positive outcomes than the way that we incarcerate people now,” DuVernay tells CityLab. “There needs to be a complete overhaul [of the prison system] where at least some small amount of dignity and humanity is included in the plans. We have absolutely none of that in the current process.”

About the Author

Brentin Mock

Brentin Mock is a staff writer at CityLab. He was previously the justice editor at Grist.

Parchman Farm and the Ordeal of Jim Crow Justice.
By David M. Oshinsky.
Illustrated. 306 pp. New York:
The Free Press. $25.

Authors are not always well served by the publicity releases their publishers send out. The Free Press acclaims '' 'WorseThanSlavery' '' as ''a window into a shocking and neglected century of despair . . . a forgotten era in black history.'' The story of despair may indeed be shocking to many readers, but it has been neither neglected by historians nor forgotten by African-Americans, whose music, art and folklore have preserved it in all its depressing but vital diversity.


David M. Oshinsky, who teaches history at Rutgers University, would be the first to acknowledge his debt to historians like C. Vann Woodward, Vernon L. Wharton and many others whose work on the history of race relations in the South, and in Mississippi specifically, has made this field one of the most thoroughly cultivated in American historiography. Building on their studies of emancipation, Reconstruction and the post-Reconstruction ''New South,'' Mr. Oshinsky places the story of Mississippi's notorious Parchman prison farm in the context of sharecropping, convict leasing, lynching and the legalized segregation that replaced slavery. In vigorous, hard-hitting prose, he exposes the nature of the new system of race relations that was indeed worse in some ways than the kind abolished in 1865.

Yet this book makes clear that Parchman in its heyday as a prison farm was not the worst part of this new slavery. Actually, it may have been one of the least of the evils that characterized Mississippi's racial injustice. Mr. Oshinsky portrays Mississippi as consistently the nation's most violent state from the 1830's to the 1930's. Its frontier status in the early years of the antebellum cotton boom produced an astonishing crop of murders, duels, cuttings and gougings among white men. It also produced record crops of cotton grown by slaves working in a brutally repressive plantation system.

During Reconstruction the Ku Klux Klan and local rifle clubs murdered hundreds of freed slaves, now Republican voters, in the successful effort to make Mississippi safe for the Democratic Party. In the New South Mississippi led the nation ''in every imaginable kind of mob atrocity: most lynchings, most multiple lynchings, most lynchings of women, most lynchings without an arrest, most lynchings of a victim in police custody and most public support for the process itself.'' Nearly half a century later, in the 1930's, ''Mississippians earned less, killed more and died younger than other Americans. They were five times more likely to be illiterate than a Pennsylvanian and ten times more likely to take another person's life.''

This culture of violence provided the setting for the most infamous form of criminal justice in American history, the convict leasing system that prevailed in most Southern states for a generation or more after emancipation. Not surprisingly, Mississippi invented convict leasing. Under slavery, black criminals had been punished on the plantation. Virtually the only jail inmates were whites. The Civil War destroyed many jails and penitentiaries, while emancipation more than doubled the free population. The crime wave and political violence that accompanied Reconstruction overwhelmed the few and inadequate jails. In desperation, Mississippi and other states turned to an expedient that quickly became an institution: the leasing of convicted criminals to private contractors, who paid a fee to the state and agreed to feed, clothe and shelter the convicts during their term of punishment.

But the motives of lessees were most emphatically not altruistic; they were in this business for profit. They used convicts to build railroads, to mine coal and iron, and to fell timber, make turpentine, clear land and grow cotton. Since nearly all leased convicts were black, few whites cared what happened to them. And if the supply of convicts fell below the demand, compliant legislators and country sheriffs stood ready to increase the supply. In 1876 the Mississippi legislature enacted the egregious ''pig law'' defining the theft of a farm animal or any property valued at $10 or more as grand larceny, punishable by up to five years in state prison. The convict population quadrupled overnight. Many contractors made fortunes from the cheap labor that they could exploit with impunity. Slaves had at least possessed the protection of their value as property; the lives of black convicts had no value in the eyes of whites. Mortality rates in convict camps rose to shocking levels. The death rate among convicts in Mississippi during the 1880's ranged from 9 to 16 percent annually. ''Not a single leased convict,'' Mr. Oshinsky notes, ''ever lived long enough to serve a sentence of 10 years or more.''

It was this system, not the Parchman prison, that the Southern reformer George Washington Cable described as ''worse than slavery.'' By the 1880's the barbarism of convict leasing had become an embarrassment even to white Mississippians. Reformers in all Southern states crusaded against the system. By the early 20th century they had succeeded in getting it abolished almost everywhere, though in several states it was replaced by state or county chain gangs -- not necessarily a great improvement.

In Mississippi, convict leasing was replaced by Parchman, a prison farm located on 20,000 acres of the world's richest cotton land, in the Yazoo-Mississippi delta. The best chapter in '' 'Worse Than Slavery' '' describes life and work for the inmates at Parchman from 1904 to the 1930's. During that time the proportion of black inmates declined from 90 to 70 percent. Whether Parchman was ''worse than slavery'' is not clear from Mr. Oshinsky's account. What is clear is that it was very much like slavery. The superintendent functioned like a slaveowner. The white guards (''sergeants'') were the overseers, and the ''trusties'' armed with shotguns and rifles resembled nothing so much as the black drivers on slave plantations. And Parchman was a huge plantation, growing thousands of bales of cotton, which produced a handsome profit for the state of Mississippi. Exploitation, violence, racism and repression characterized Parchman. Mr. Oshinsky reproduces the words of several blues songs that portray the Parchman experience with sad eloquence. But what emerges from Mr. Oshinsky's account is a set of ironies that he implicitly acknowledges but does not explicitly develop. Parchman was better than convict leasing. It was probably less brutal in its treatment of black inmates than the prisons or chain gangs of other Southern states. And in an odd twist, it may have been better in some respects than what the civil rights revolution of the 1960's forced it to become.

At that time, with in-your-face spite, Mississippi officials jailed hundreds of civil rights activists for a brief time at Parchman, including James Farmer and Stokely Carmichael. Their reports of dismal conditions focused a national spotlight on Parchman's dark corners that resulted in a class-action suit. A Federal district court ordered the state to reform, upgrade and desegregate the prison. Since 1970 it has been ''reformed.'' As a consequence, inmates who formerly worked from dawn to dusk in Parchman's cotton fields and fell into an exhausted sleep in the barracks now sit in their cells with little to do except vent their energy in deadly fights with one another. In desegregated barracks, black and white convicts who were once kept rigidly separated now prey on each other in organized gangs. ''The Federal court had shifted the balance of terror from the keepers to the inmates,'' Mr. Oshinsky writes, and in 1990 the Parchman emergency room treated the ''staggering number'' of 2,305 cases of assault.

Perhaps the ultimate irony was voiced by an elderly black inmate of almost 50 years at Parchman. In the old plantationlike prison, he said, he had ''the feeling that work counted for something . . . kept us tired and kept us together and made me feel better inside.'' But today, he added, ''I look around . . . and see a place that makes me sad.''

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