A unique thing about the United States is that we fought a war to end slavery in our country, and that our own constitution includes an amendment which abolished slavery in the United States and in any territory under its control. However, that great accomplishment was not much of an accomplishment as we believe it to be.
According to the Thirteenth Amendment, which is credited with outlawing slavery, slavery cannot be practiced “except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted”. It’s a sneaky loophole–a loophole that has been overlooked for far too long.
Unsurprisingly, this loophole has been used, and used extensively. The United States has approximately 5% of the world's population, but 25% of the world's prisoners. We have a higher number of incarcerated people than China, a country with four times our population. It frankly raises the question: how did the United States come to lock up so many of its people?
The answer can in part be traced back to the post-Civil War era of economic history and racial legislation designed to maintain control over newly freed black Americans. Minor offenses were criminalized in Southern states, arresting freed black men and forcing them to work when they could not pay the fines. This would disenfranchise black people across the South. They were further excluded from participation in the political system, such as court juries. Legalized segregation through Jim Crow Laws would further restrict racial minorities, maintaining their position in society as second-class.
Fast forward a few decades, and we see the foundation on which modern mass incarceration is built on. In the 1960s, companies looking to cut costs moved production out of big cities or automated away large portions of their workforce. Former employees were left jobless, primarily affecting the poor and marginalized. Middle class white people fled to the suburbs. Cities lost tax revenue and economic opportunities dried up; as urban poverty rose, so did crime. The funnelling of crack cocaine with the help of American foreign policy in the 1980s only worsened the situation.
What did American politicians do? They chose to lock up millions of people—the poor, the marginalized, and the mentally ill—because mass incarceration turned out to be cheaper than the wealth redistribution and investment a real solution would have required. Furthermore, this "solution" also played as an effective political tool. Middle class white voters terrified of rising crime from increasingly non-white and poor cities provided a channel through which Republicans and Democrats could exploit racist and classist fears and win elections.
Even as crime rates began declining, prison populations kept increasing. Why? The entrance of private prison contractors says it all. They maintained their own economic incentives by criminalizing minor activities and lengthening sentences in order to keep prisons full, satisfying demand as arrests and sentences increased. Politicians and businessmen have allegedly had incentives to keep prisons full in rural areas. A full prison means a full workforce. A full workforce means more inmates to provide free labor.
With mistreatment in prisons and no rehabilitation or channels through which to reenter society, America has become the home of the highest recidivism rates, turning people in prison into slaves for prison labor.