Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Slavery in America, Today

It's commonly understood that the Thirteenth Amendment to the US Constitution abolished slavery. But wait, it has an exception! Here it is in its entirety (emphasis mine):

Section 1. 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.

Section 2. Congress shall have the power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.

As a major part of my incarceration at Wayne County Jail between May 16 and June 25 last year, I found myself forced to work in a kitchen almost daily, three times a day, serving meals to other inmates. I also spent a day dismantling an abandoned nursing home (and helping to improve a shooting range), and for my last day in jail, literally breaking apart gravel with a pickaxe.

Many aspects of forced labor were completely new to me; for example, the incentive to wake up on time (at 5:00 am) was to avoid getting yelled at or threatened by the corrections officers. Any resistance to an officer's orders could result in either solitary confinement or extra days spent in jail. The system is built on absolute power and fear, which is nothing new in human history, but it was new to me.

And fear is a good motivator. I found it strange to help install a sink and food prep area at a shooting range, where guards practice how to use lethal force against inmates like me. I found it strange to distribute 150 battery cage eggs a day, each egg equaling a full day a poor hen spent in deplorable conditions, when I was in jail precisely because of my resistance to battery cage egg production. And I found it strange to aid in the functions of a system that was causing pain and hurting families much more than it could ever benefit society. But I thought, correctly or not, that I had too much to lose to resist.

One could claim that the injustice of modern slavery is for punishment, or for safety, or to maintain civility. But should any society, as common practice, give any person complete power over others, as a correction officer has over an inmate? Or, to consider it from a different angle, is any western society ready to drastically reform its criminal "justice" system so it becomes a system of rehabilitation instead of oppression? Every US citizen should agree that our justice system isn't working, and perhaps it refuses to function, in large part, because of all the injustice at its foundation.

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