America's Only Legal Institution of Slavery
Updated: Sep 11
By: Donald V. Watkins
Copyrighted and Published on May 8, 2020
Most Americans do not realize that the U.S. Constitution permits one form of legalized slavery in the country. The Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution, which was ratified in 1865, expressly authorizes the enslavement of human beings as punishment for state and federal crimes. As a nation, we institutionalize these individuals in state and federal penal colonies called "correctional institutions."
In penal slavery, prisoners may be required to work on public or private property for pennies per hour; they may be required to work longer than 40 hours per week whenever they are directed to do so by prison officials; they may be compelled to perform hazardous duty work without the proper safety training and equipment; they are jammed into substandard dormitories and/or prison cells without adequate temperature controls; they may be punished by prison officials without just cause; they may be placed in dungeons and isolation units called "Special Housing Units," and they are subjected to the lowest standards of nutrition, personal hygiene, and healthcare in America.
A Time When Nobody Cared
I didn't realize the true nature and scope of penal slavery until I became a lawyer. One of my first cases was the effort in 1974 to secure a full and unconditional pardon from the state of Alabama for Mr. Clarence Norris, the last known surviving "Scottsboro Boys." This case involved nine teenage black boys who were arrested in 1932 and falsely accused of raping two white prostitutes on a freight train passing through the Paint Rock community near Scottsboro, Alabama. The Boys were tried three times and eight of them were sentenced to death each time, even though one of the women recanted her testimony and the doctor who examined them when the Boys were arrested told the trial judge James Horton the women were not raped. The U.S. Supreme Court saved the Boys from execution at the last minute each time they were convicted and sentenced to die.
In November 1976, the Alabama Pardons and Parole Board, with the concurrence of Gov. George C. Wallace, awarded Mr. Norris the first pardon ever issued to a death row inmate based upon a showing of "innocence." Mr. Norris's pardon ended a 45-year legal battle to clear the names of the nine Scottsboro Boys.
During my representation of Mr. Norris, I reviewed decades of court files and prison records in his case. The prison records revealed unspeakable acts of the inhumane treatment inflicted upon the Boys while they were in Alabama's penal colony. For example, white guards repeatedly whipped the Boys with thick leather straps for no apparent reason. These guards spat on them, urinated on them for fun, and dared the Boys to complain about this conduct to their New York lawyers. The Boys were constantly placed in solitary confinement. The guards repeatedly tortured some of the Boys in a futile effort to extract confessions out of them.
After Alabama Supreme Court justices upheld their convictions and the governor signed their death warrants on three separate occasions, the Boys were required to make their own coffins and lay in them for hours. Guards then urinated on them while they laid in their coffins.
I have never spoken or written about the other unspeakable acts of inhumane treatment to which the Boys were subjected because I don't want to inspire hatred by one racial group of Americans against another group of Americans. Instead, I have always focused on the heroic acts of their lawyers, one trial judge (James Horton), and the U.S. Supreme Court Justices who stepped up to save the Boys' lives, even when it meant putting their own lives in jeopardy and careers at risk.
In the 1950s, Mr. Norris escaped his imprisonment in Alabama and fled to New York. He was a fugitive from Alabama-style "justice" when I met him in 1974. State prison officials demanded that Mr. Norris return to prison in Alabama and resume his life as a penal system slave before his petition for a pardon would be considered. I refused this demand. Mr. Norris' formal emancipation from penal slavery in Alabama occurred two years later.
Court-Ordered Prison Reform
America's system of penal slavery underwent a fundamental and positive change from the inhumane conditions of slavery that existed from 1865 through the 1960s. In the early 1970s, a couple of courageous federal judges in Alabama -- Chief U.S. District Court Judge Frank M. Johnson, Jr., in Montgomery and U.S. District Judge Virgil Pittman in Mobile -- ordered substantial prison reforms for city and county jails and state prisons in Alabama. Their prison reforms later became national standards for penal colonies across America.
Judges Johnson and Pittman stopped Alabama prison officials from: (a) operating a dual system of penal colonies that provided separate but unequal prison facilities and treatment for white and black inmates, (b) denying prisoners nutritional meals and adequate medical attention, (c) administering beatings to black male and female inmates with straps and paddles, (d) torturing black inmates, (e) forcibly sterilizing poor female inmates of both races, (f) conducting human experiments on black inmates, (g) performing lobotomies on inmates in mental institutions, (h) ignoring the constitutional rights of inmates to freedom of speech, family visitations, and basic educational opportunities, (i) forcing prisoners to urinate and defecate in cans, rather than in toilets, and (j) confining inmates for long periods of time in small, cramped, dirty, isolation "Holes" without toilets, lights, or windows.
In essence, these two brave federal judges imposed a minimum standard of human decency for the operation of Alabama prisons. They were severely ostracized by Alabama's white community and media for many years for doing so.
The social mores and racial attitudes of the 19th and 20th centuries inevitably bled over into the operations of federal penal colonies. For decades, prisoners in these colonies suffered inhumane treatment in all aspects of prison life. Later on, the U.S. Bureau of Prisons became an integral part of the Department of Justice's formal COINTELPRO program to discredit, harass, and imprison civil rights activists on trumped up criminal charges during the 1950s, 60s, and 70s. An informal version of this COINTELPRO collaboration has continued for decades.
After Judges Johnson and Pittman died, their prison reform standards remained intact for nearly two decades following their deaths. Eventually, the cases that produced these landmark prison reform court orders were closed, thereby paving the way for a renaissance of old-fashion penal slavery practices.
The Penal Slave Trade is Thriving
Today, the overwhelming majority of judges on the federal bench call themselves "strict constructionists" of the U.S. Constitution. For the most part, they do not share Johnson's and Pittman's commitment to prison reform. These judges do not demand the strict enforcement of minimum standards of decency in state and federal penal colonies. In fact, many of these federal judges viewed themselves as "strict constructionists" and they use this ideological stance to justify their rollback of penal conditions to pre-1865 enslavement standards. What is more, they enthusiastically drive the slave trade of inmates into the federal penal colonies.
The slave trade between so-called "law and order" judges and penal colonies in the U. S. is big business. As a result, there is always a steady stream of new slaves coming into these penal colonies. The federal penal colonies, alone, hold 175,000 inmates and receive about $39,000 per year from the federal government to house, feed, clothe, and care for each inmate. A huge chuck of this money goes to support a unionized workforce in federal prisons and to purchase cheap Commissary goods from China for resale to inmates at jacked up prices.
With new inmates coming into state and federal prison colonies every day, there is no real incentive for these colonies to provide anything beyond the bare minimum in living conditions and healthcare to inmates. Regardless of what status an inmate held in the free world and whether he/she was rightly or wrongfully convicted of the charges against him/her, he/she is a slave in America's penal colonies.
Today, it appears that the novel coronavirus is changing everything in penal colonies. State and federal prisons are releasing inmates in record numbers in response to the highly contagious, sweeping, and deadly virus. It took a global pandemic of Biblical proportions to serve as the new agent of change in America's prisons. Non-violent, first-time offenders who should have been released from captivity years ago are now going home because of an "Act of God" that is killing more than 2,000 Americans a day, with no end in sight. The coronavirus may be the force that finally curbs legalized slavery in America's penal colonies.