By Kevin “Rashid” Johnson
During 1776, in the midst of its Revolutionary War against British colonial rule, Amerika declared its independence. A major event we’re told that led up to the demand and struggle for independence was the Boston Tea Party.
On December 16, 1773, Amerikan patriots dumped 342 chests of British tea into the Boston Harbor. This was done in protest over the British government’s forcing its Amerikan colonies to pay taxes on British tea, while the colonies had no power to participate in the British political system and its policies that affected them. Such “taxation without representation” was seen as pure tyranny and a clear form of slavery.
If “taxation without representation” was a just cause for struggle then, it is equally so today.
In theory, the voting process empowers citizens to choose their political representatives and leaders. This is supposed to be the essence of republican form of government. Indeed, the power to vote is itself what distinguishes the citizen of a republic from an alien or slave.
So what does this mean for prisoners and most ex-felons in Amerika who’ve been stripped of the power to vote? It means exactly what the U.S. Constitution’s 13th Amendment says of us—that we are slaves, not citizens. And like all other slaves past and present, although we are excluded from participating in choosing our rulers, we are still compelled to support and pay them with the wealth we produce.
Taxation Without Representation
The notion that U.S. prisoners do not pay taxes is false. We are subject to garnished wages and interest that collects on all money deposited into our prison accounts is expropriated for government purchases. Every dime we spend in prison commissaries for basic necessities, hygiene items, writing supplies, food, etc. is taxed and an additional percentage of the net profits is also taken by the government. Prison departments receive massive kickbacks from the criminally overpriced rates we and our families pay on automated phone calls. Our personal property is routinely confiscated, policies on what we may possess are frequently changed to justify such takings and to compel our continued purchases from prison commissaries to replace property no longer allowed or rendered obsolete. We are fined for everything from medical care (generally substandard care at that), to disciplinary charges, to costs imposed upon our criminal convictions. We’re compelled to pay either up front or in routine deposits hundreds to thousands of dollars to pursue litigation seeking to protect what very few “rights” we’re supposed to have. And to top it all off we are paid mere pennies to nothing at all to perform various jobs from manufacturing and prison maintenance work to textile production, food service and custodial trades, to assembly work that free world Amerikans would earn at least minimum wage to do And we receive no vacations, work safety protections, nor any other “benefits.” This is slave labor.
Overall, the Prison Industrial Complex (PIC) expropriates billions of dollars of labor and taxes from prisoners every year. And in that we are stripped of the franchise we are, like early Amerikans under British colonial rule, victims of taxation without representation. We are slaves in every sense of the word.
Slavery is a detestable tyranny in all its forms, and one that cannot be justified no matter who it is imposed against and no matter what the claimed reason. Indeed, the U.S. in drafting and ratifying the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948 acknowledged as much. Article 4 of that Declaration states: “No one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms.” This Declaration, which the U.S. government played a central role in drafting and bound itself to, stands in stark contradiction to the 13th Amendment’s authorizing that convicts be treated as slaves[i].
But such contradictions of U.S. leaders on slavery are not new to Amerikan history. Indeed, a major motive behind a large sector of the wealthy Amerikan ruling class’s opposition to British colonial rule, leading to the Amerikan Revolutiionary War, was Britain’s condemning the slave trade in a 1772 decree.
This ban threatened the wealthy agricultural ruling class in Amerika whose wealth depended on maintaining the slave system. In June 1772 Lord Mansfield of the British high court outlawed the trade and holding of Black slaves. This ruling extended also to the Amerikan colonies which were subjects of the British crown. In Mansfield’s own words:
“ . . . the state of slavery is of such a nature that it is incapable of being introduced on any reasons, moral or political; but only by positive law, which preserves its force long after the reasons, occasion, and time itself from whence it was created is erased from memory. It’s so odious that nothing can be suffered to support it, but positive law. Whatever inconveniences therefore, may follow from a decision, I cannot say this case is allowed or approved by the law of England; and therefore the black must be discharged.”
So while the wealthy leaders of the Amerikan Revolution were inspired to pronounce in their Declaration of Independence the “self-evident” truth “that all men are created equal” and are divinely endowed with the “unalienable rights” to “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness,” a major motive behind many of them backing a bloody war to win independence from Britain was to keep their Blacks in slavery.
Initially in the original draft of the Declaration of Independence, slavery was listed as one of the King’s crimes that justified separation. Not all of the revolutionaries supported slavery. But a large enough number of them did, and this condemnation of slavery was removed from the final draft of the Declaration, which was then approved by the Continental Congress on July 4, 1776; the very same July 4th that Blacks today share in celebrating.
It was in answer to the vile contradiction that July 4th commemorates liberty in Amerika, that Frederick Douglass attacked the hypocrisy of the holiday in an Independence Day address he gave on July 4, 1852.
“Fellow Citizens: Pardon me, and allow me to ask, why am I called upon to speak here today? What have I or those I represent to do with your national independence? Are the great principles of political freedom and of natural justice embodied in that Declaration of Independence extended to us? And am I, therefore, called upon to bring our humble offering to the national altar and to confess the benefits and express devout gratitude for the blessings resulting from your independence to us? . . .
“What to the American slave is your Fourth of July? I answer: a day that reveals to him more than all other days of the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity, your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciation of tyrants, brass-fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgiving with all your parade and solemnity, are to him mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety and hypocrisy—a thin veil to cover up crimes that would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation of the earth guilty of practices more shocking and bloody than the people of these United States, at this very hour.”
Thus was the face of slavery then and the hypocrisies that allowed it, so it is today: a vile tyranny of oppression that manifests itself in Amerika today not only as taxation without representation, but also brutal incarceration on razor wire plantations.
But when has there ever been a benevolent and righteous system of slavery? Never.
Apologists for today’s penal slavery proclaim that those who run afoul of the law deserve their enslavement. They would also like to convince everyone that this modern slavery is somehow kind and gentle, purged of the general barbarisms inherent in slavery. Who of them have never violated the innumerable laws of Amerika? In fact the crimes of the poor and people of color who are the principal targets of penal slavery pale in comparison to those of the ruling class and their government.
The apologists’ arguments hold sway only because, unlike other and older forms of slavery, modern penal slavery is not a condition witnessed by the public, but is hidden from public view within fortresses of concrete and razor wire. But this system’s oppressive, cruel and depressing realities and its legions of incalculable brutal crimes inflicted on voiceless victims can be read about at length in such periodicals as Prison Legal News.[ii] In fact a 1973 experiment exposed the brutal and oppressive dynamics inevitably unleashed by and inherent in the prison environment.
A simulated prison was constructed at Stanford University, under the direction of psychologist Philip Zimbardo, who randomly gave 21 average, healthy American college males roles as prisoners and guards. Uniforms and clubs were issued to the guards, while the prisoners were give gowns to distinguish their differing inferior role. Although the experiment was planned to last two weeks, it was terminated after just six days because brutality by the guards was growing dangerously out of control. The experiment graphically proved the truism that arbitrary power corrupts, and absolute arbitrary power corrupts absolutely.
Under the guards’ “sense of mastery and control” the prisoners suffered “depression and hopelessness.” All 11 guards “behaved sadistically,” and several “delighted in the new-found power,” showing “great . . . cruelty in the forms of degradation they invented for the prisoners.” Zimbardo found that in the role of guards, all the participants committed acts of cruelty, and several engaged in acts of exceptional and extreme cruelty.[iii] Even U.S. courts have admitted “prison guards may be more vulnerable to the corrupting influence of unchecked authority than most people.” The court went on to add:
“It is well known that prisons are operated on minimum budgets and that poor salaries and working conditions make it difficult to attract high-caliber personnel. Moreover, the ‘training’ of the officers in dealing with obstreperous prisoners is but a euphemism in most states.”[iv]
This, despite the fairy tale version given by prison apologists is the lived reality of prison slavery.
It is this reality that lies behind the recognition that there has never been and could never be a humane form of slavery. As Lord Mansfield observed over 300 years ago, slavery is by its very nature incapable of being justified on any moral or political grounds, and exists solely by authority of insensitive laws. Rationalizations for slavery are today as ever but prevarications, hypocrisy, and lies, just like the racist lies and bestial stereotypes created against New Afrikans (Blacks) to falsely rationalize our chattel enslavement for 250 years as an economic expediency for the wealthy.
Just as was done during chattel slavery, the vilifying race and class based images of criminality, ignorance, and incivility that are attributed today to the poor—but to Blacks and Latinos especially, who make up over half of the U.S. prison population—are conditions and images created by the wealthy ruling class to rationalize our being the principal targets of confinement, oppression and economic exploitation in today’s razor wire plantations.
In the past three decades the prison population in Amerika has quadrupled, subjecting millions to both incarceration and taxation without representation: a modern slavery within a country that projects itself to the world as a shining example of democratic values. (Note: democracy means rule by a government of representatives elected by those subject to that government’s authority and such a system emphasizes equal rights to all). This is Amerika at its hypocritical best. The same Amerika that, while it strips millions of its own “citizens” of the vote, justifies war in Iraq—that has so far cost the lives of thousands of its own soldiers and hundreds of thousands of Iraqis—in the name of “spreading democracy.”
In the face of declarations of international law, penal slavery in Amerika exists “legally” solely upon the authority of the 13th Amendment: a law that not only contradicts every other modern proclamation against slavery in the “civilized” western world, but one that was actually never passed into law as a valid constitutional amendment. That’s right, the 13th Amendment is not a valid constitutional law. It was adopted and applied to the states by the 14th Amendment under martial law, at the end of the U.S. Civil War while the Southern states were under military occupation by the Union Army. When martial law ends so do all laws instituted under military authority.
Under Article 5 of the U.S. Constitution any proposed amendment to the Constitution must be ratified by2/3 of the Union of States. During the Reconstruction period after the Civil War (1865-1877), the Confederate government was overthrown in a military coup by the U.S. federal government. Military and martial law were declared. Military flags were raised in many state courts across the country indicating that emergency war powers were in effect and the Constitution was in effect suspended. Southern senators had been removed from office by force during the Civil War. They were replaced by military officers. It was these officers and not the duly elected members of Congress who voted in the Reconstruction Era Amendments (the 13th and 14th Amendments). The 14th Amendment—which is the amendment that made the 13th Amendment applicable to all the Union States and which forced the “freed” Blacks to become citizen subjects of the U.S. instead of allowing them to freely choose their own citizenship or independent national identity (but that’s another paper), was proclaimed as ratified by the Secretary of State (July 28, 1868), over which Ohio and New Jersey protested and attempted to withdraw.[v]
So there you have it. The Reconstruction Era Amendments (which includes the 13th Amendment), had no legal standing after the end of the Reconstruction period when the Union Army withdrew from the South and Martial law supposedly ended. Or did it?
Ironically, on February 24, 2007 the General Assembly of Virginia issued a rhetorical verbal and unwritten resolution expressing “profound regret” for the state’s role in slavery. These being the same legislators who oversee the Virginia prison system (where I am myself imprisoned), which without any citizen vote allocates hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars each year (prisoners’ and our loved ones’ tax and labor dollars included) toward the continued expansion and operation of this modern day plantation system, wherein the heinous abuses symptomatic of all slave systems abound. What’s more, Virginia bears the distinction reversing the trend in other states, of actually building prisons faster than it can produce bodies to fill them; despite having one of the nation’s highest conviction rates and having implemented three strikes laws and abolished parole over a decade ago.
But as for the claimed “regret” over Virginia’s role in slavery expressed by its lawmakers—have they never read the 13th Amendment? Even if they haven’t, ignorance of the law is no excuse. So, how does one “profoundly regret” a condition that they are a functional part of, still enforcing? This is typical U.S. hypocrisy to conceal its brutal political reality.
While it is important in many cases for us to mobilize electoral support for those political candidates who prove to pursue and enforce the interests of the common people (while being mindful of their nature to prevaricate and spew forth empty promises and rhetoric), it is even more important that we move to amend the 13th Amendment to eliminate the clause that authorizes the treatment of convicted felons as slaves, and we must move to extend the franchise to prisoners and ex-felons.
We must demand an end to all forms of slavery in holding with international law! No incarceration or taxation without representation! ALL POWER TO THE PEOPLE!
[i] Article 1 of the 13th Amendment states: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as punishment for crime where of the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”
[ii] This journal can be read online at www.prisonlegalnews.org.
[iii] See Philip G. Zimbardo, “On the Ethics of Intervention in Human Psychological Research: With Special Reference to the Stanford Prison Experiment,” Cognition 2, No. 2, (1973) 243-44.
[iv] See Landman V. Peyton, 370 F. 2d 135, 140 (4th Cir. 1966).
[v] On May 6, 1987 Thurgood Marshall pulled our coats. He said, “While the Union survived the Civil War, the Constitution did not . . . in its place arose a more promising basis for justice and equality, the 14th Amendment.”