Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Mississippi Learnin': Slave Labor in 2017

Let's start with some numbers:
Ok, now let's get into this without swearing.  I really want to swear.  I really, really do.  But I'm a gentleman, and gentlemen only do that in private with their pinkies out.

When I first arrived into Mississippi, I noticed something I'd never seen before in another state.  Every so often along the highway, I would see a crew of people cleaning the side of the road.  Those people were always in distinct uniforms so that they could easily be recognized.  They were criminals, and they were laboring away in the sweltering heat picking up trash.

After spending some time driving around with a lifelong Mississippian, I had it loosely explained to me that this was a win-win situation.  The prisoners got to spend some time outside of jail and the county got discounted labor (discounted, free...  potato, potato).  Prisoners also ran a nearby produce stop where they sold veggies that they grew.  My Mississippian never once said it was a good way for prisoners to earn some income, and I never asked to clarify whether that omission was intentional or not.

So let's go back to the numbers up above.  In a state where unemployment is at 6.6%, why are prisoners doing work rather than employing someone that needs a job?  Shouldn't MDOT have people on their staff that could do highway beautification for a paycheck?  Wouldn't it make sense to create jobs where they very obviously could be created, especially unskilled positions in a state with low four-year degree rates?  Wouldn't it be beneficial to the state as a whole to help the unemployed get back into the workforce, which in turn betters the entire economy as they rejoin it?

Obviously, this is all rhetorical.  I know why prisoners are doing the work.  They are unpaid (for all I's and P's), yet somehow subsidized labor.  Mississippi and the South have deep roots in unpaid labor.  It worked so well for so long, why not try it again?  Oh, right, because last time it ended with their entire economy being wiped out, the loss of hundreds of thousands of lives, and a trail of burning buildings from Atlanta to Savannah.

Mississippi (along with the country as a whole) has a disproportionate number of minorities in jail, a hallmark of overt, unchecked racism.  While whites outnumber Hispanics by 19:1 in the state population, they are dwarfed by 1:8 in prison.  Versus blacks, it's 3:2 in the population, and 1:3 in jail.  With a fresh supply of non-whites readily available at all times, Jail Cells have become the new Slave Quarters.  Mississippi has found a way around the 13th Amendment.  It might be time for another emancipation.

I was happy to find a NYTimes article covering this terrible practice, and happier to see the program was going to be scaled back.  I was less happy to see it was being scaled back for financial reasons, instead of the blatant wrongness of it.  In any case, here's a quote from the article:
“Prison slave labor isn’t free; someone’s paying for it, and, typically, it’s a state subsidy to the counties,” said Paul Wright, the executive director of the Human Rights Defense Center and the editor of Prison Legal News. “At the end of the day, even when the prisoners are being totally exploited and paid nothing, the labor itself is far from free.” - NY Times, 6/2/2105
So the only way to end a racist practice is to make it financially unattractive?  If that's the case, does anyone have any ideas on how to make racism itself less profitable?  Currently, our judicial system is doing a great job of keeping private prisons profitable by filling them up with minorities.  How could the system be changed to make this practice a financial disaster?  Heavy federal fines for wrongfully imprisoned minorities?  Removal of federal funding for states that have proven racist practices (the ACLU would be all over that in a heartbeat)?  

But really, I don't think racism is ever going to go away.  We are animalistic creatures with biological impulses that tell us to fear those that don't look like us.  Some of us have overcome those impulses, while others have embraced them.  That said, it's the job of everyone who's evolved past animal instinct to try to reach out to those who still drag their knuckles, in the hopes of getting them to walk upright.  (If you see somebody being shitty, reach out to them.  Talk to them.  See if you can use that big brain of yours to help them see the error in their ways and be a better person.)  And above that, it is the job the governing power to hold themselves and their citizens to the highest standards, not the basest.  If that means heavy fines for bad behavior, so be it.

Anyway, if you have any interest in getting really angry (so much swearing) and possibly involved, go catch up on episodes of Reveal, a wonderful show from The Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX.  Either listen to their hour long episodes or read stories online.  You can start with content tagged as Criminal Justice.

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