Plantations to Penitentiaries: Race and the U.S. Prison System

by Lana Lynne on March 12, 2010
Over a year ago, headlines across the country blared news of two Pennsylvania judges who were accused of accepting millions of dollars in kickbacks to incarcerate juveniles (read our post about it here). The outcry turned much-needed attention to the relationship between incarceration, class, and race -- an issue that occasionally gets spotlighted in the national media with cases such as the Jena 6, Mumia Abu Jamal, and the Angola 3, to name a few.

But the cases, the concerns, the activism, and the scholarship about the racialization of the prison industrial complex continue, whether they ripple through the mainstream consciousness or not. Recently, Angola 3 News interviewed Nancy A. Heitzeg, Ph.D, professor of Sociology and co-director of the Critical Studies of Race and Ethnicity program at St. Catherine University in St. Paul, Minnesota. The issues raised in the interviews -- for instance, how a former slave plantation now functions as the State Penitentiary of Louisiana at Angola (once known as the "bloodiest prison in America"), or how the South transformed slave labor into prison labor following the enactment of the 13th and 15th Amendments -- give horrifying historical insight into how race and ethnicity play out in the modern U.S. prison system. Following are just a few excerpts from the two-part interview.

From the first interview, which deals with the history of the modern prison system, specifically through the lens of the prison at Angola:
Slave Codes became Black Codes and criminalized a range of activities if the perpetrator was black. The newly acquired 15th Amendment right to vote was curtailed by tailoring of felony disenfranchisement laws to include crimes that were supposedly more frequently committed by blacks. And, the liberatory promise of the 13th Amendment – “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude shall exist in the United States”- contained a dangerous loophole- “except as a punishment for crime”. This allowed for the conversion of the old plantations to penitentiaries, and this, with the introduction of the convict lease system, permitted the South to continue to economically benefit from the unpaid labor of blacks.

The patterns established in the old south have proliferated and expanded throughout the US, as African Americans are disproportionately policed, prosecuted, convicted, disenfranchised and imprisoned in the prison industrial complex. There has been a corresponding shift from de jure racism codified explicitly into the law and to a de facto racism where people of color, especially African Americans, are subject to unequal protection of the laws, excessive surveillance, extreme segregation and neo-slave labor via incarceration—all in the name of “crime control”. It is the current manifestation of the legal legacy of the racialized transformations of plantations into prisons, of Slave Codes into Black Codes, of lynching into state-sponsored executions. The “imputation of crime to color” that Frederick Douglass warned of 125 years ago continues to the present.
And from the second interview, which broadens the scope of Heitzeg's (and others') analysis of the prison system:
Prison has become a source of profit. The prison industrial complex is a self-perpetuating machine where the vast profits (e.g. cheap labor, construction contracts, job creation, and continued media profits from exaggerated crime reporting and crime/punishment as entertainment) and perceived political benefits (e.g. reduced unemployment rates, “get tough on crime” and public safety rhetoric, and funding increases for police and criminal justice system agencies and professionals) lead to policies that are additionally designed to insure an endless supply of “clients” for the criminal justice system. These self-serving policies include enhanced police presence in poor neighborhoods and communities of color; racial profiling; decreased funding for public education combined with zero-tolerance policies and increased rates of expulsion for students of color; increased rates of adult certification for juvenile offenders; mandatory minimum and “three-strikes” sentencing; draconian conditions of incarceration and a reduction of prison services that contribute to the likelihood of “recidivism.”
Read the entire interviews and more at

The photo is featured with the interviews and is from, the website of the Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II, by Douglas A. Blackmon.
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1 comment:

  1. Really interesting post here that I think cannot be publicized enough. The U.S. system is far from perfect, but this is perhaps the most egregious of its problems. Thanks for putting this together.


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