13th

Kenya C
2 min readJun 1, 2021

The 13th amendment is why I lay in bed staring at the ceiling waiting for my son to come home. Not because I think he will do anything wrong but because of the machine that criminalizes and profits from the incarceration of black men. The machine is media, law enforcement, public opinion, government, and the big business of prison. 1 out of 17 white men will be incarcerated in their lifetime, compared to 1 out 3 black men. The machine keeps me up at night.

The 13th chronicles the economic engine of slavery and the institutions that replaced it. Although I am familiar with the history, the point that slavery never went away (it was simply restructured) was a startling one to me.

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.

After slavery was abolished by the 13th amendment, the United States needed laborers to maintain the economy of the South. The 13th amendment allowed this to happen by arresting large numbers of newly freed people for minor crimes. Slavery was duly replaced by convict leasing programs. The convict leasing program has reshaped itself into the “prison industrial complex”. Simply put, there is money to be made as long as citizens are incarcerated at a high rate and given longer sentences. Those that profit include private investors, companies that contract cheap prison labor, and those that provide food, clothing and services to prisons. Mass incarceration has also created jobs in areas with little other industry.

Although the US accounts for 5% of the world’s population, we represent 25% of the world’s prison population. This increase began in the Nixon administration and exploded during the Reagan, Bush, and Clinton years. The 3-strikes law, mandatory minimums, and private prisons disproportionately affected poor black and Latino communities. 97% of people plea bargain and never see a courtroom, jury, or judge.

There were many difficult themes covered while watching the 13th, but as a black American, the role of the government is one of the most difficult to mentally process. Civil rights leaders and activists were criminalized, murdered, and villainized as part of a great intentional effort to keep black Americans as permanent second class citizens. The law and the media has been used and is still being used as a powerful weapon against people of color. The political and financial gains that come with mass incarceration make it a problem that few really want to solve.

As long as we incentivize locking people up, the problem of mass incarceration will continue to grow. And as for me, I’ll keep staring at the ceiling until I hear my son’s key in the door every night.

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