Racism Mass Incarceration Policing

Juneteenth's Call for Freedom: Ending Slavery in Prisons

By Chanda Daniels on June, 18 2024

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Chanda Daniels

Chanda Daniels is Director of Communications for Common Justice.

Over the last few years, Juneteenth, which began as a Texas-centered celebration, has grown into a federal holiday with cookouts, parades, and retail sales. And as ironic as it is that Juneteenth commemorates the end of the horrors of chattel slavery via the transatlantic slave trade, slavery is technically still legal in the penal system, and a financial driver in many states. 

Let me provide a bit of background.  Common Justice is proud to be the nation’s first alternative-to-incarceration and victim services non-profit, and we are proud of the program we have built to allow responsible parties – those who have harmed others- to take accountability without incarceration. We understand that a person – any person- is more than their lowest moment. And it is for these reasons that we understand that while slavery was technically abolished in 1863 (despite it taking two years for the news to reach Galveston, TX), the 13th Amendment still allows for what amounts to slavery in the case of punishment for a crime.  

Time and time again, studies have shown that incarceration doesn’t actually work– especially when other factors like poverty, mental illness, disenfranchisement or any combination of the three may also be involved. Instead of providing the tools for responsible parties to take accountability AND heal, they are locked away and forced to work to what often amounts to nothing.  

The United States economy grew rapidly because it was built on unpaid labor. After the Civil War, during reconstruction, sharecropping was devised as a way to get more “free” labor. Not unlike the mandatory minimum laws that gained popularity in the 1990s, and still apply in many states, harsher penalties for Black people called Black Codes built and grew prison populations. The rise in the chain gang prison system, which not-so-coincidentally looked very similar to the slave-overseer dynamic on plantations, forced prisoners to farm, dig ditches, and even build railroads for free.  

This modern-day slavery repackaged as “paying one’s debt to society” includes everything from maintaining the prison grounds, to cooking meals, to fighting wildfires in western states, to working in Department of Motor Vehicle call centers, to highway maintenance, to manufacturing food products sold at grocery stores like Whole Foods. I’m sure I’m not the only one who remembers the news reports about incarcerated New Yorkers making 100,000 gallons of hand sanitizer weekly during the early days of COVID-19. Some who are incarcerated do make a meager sum from their work, but it amounts to less than $10 per day. Many facilities require payment for everything from feminine sanitary products to toothpaste, and the wages are not fully exempt from federal taxes. Realistically, many make nothing, and lack the basic worker protections of the minimum wage, wage increases, or the right to unionize.  

When we talk about justice and progress, we need to take a long, hard look at the systematic structures put in place to prevent freedom.  The American prison system isn’t based on reform, it’s based on economics, and getting the most out of people for free.  Laws are still skewed toward incarcerating Black and poor people, just like during reconstruction.  

While we can and should celebrate Juneteenth, and what it means for Black Americans, the reality is that slavery still exists, and it exists for the same reason it existed 400 years ago – economic gain. The pursuit of unpaid labor not only fuels centuries-old income disparities between Black and white Americans, but it has also strategically weakened communities and families due to its reliance on growing prison populations. We at Common Justice are committed continuing to provide and advocate for non-carceral solutions to addressing harm, keeping as many as possible out of prison.  But it can’t end there. Closing Rikers is a natural next step. Other cities and states can and should do the same. The tools necessary to help incarcerated Americans make amends exist, and we can no longer allow them to be exploited for corporate gain and greed. 


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