Last week, Book Riot Editor Kelly Jensen wrote an excellent roundup of things to know about Prison Banned Book Week, which took place this year from October 25- 31. Kelly covered the current censorship landscape extensively (like extensively, extensively), and I’ve even written before about how modern censorship efforts are rooted in fascism, but I think the prison variety is its own breed — from an older tradition.
We know by now that, just as a civil war and amendments came, so too did countermeasures to maintain the status quo (actually, I’d say to strengthen it, but that’s another conversation). These measures were insidious threads of practices, policies, and laws that were woven into the fabric of the foundation of this country. Collectively, these days, we call them systemic racism, and one of these threads is our prison system.
Our system of prisons, even in its current iteration, can trace itself back to the days of slavery. Whitney Benns opens up an article for The Atlantic with a quote from the 13th Amendment — known as the freeing amendment — that essentially names prisons as the new enslavers, saying that slavery was forbidden, “except as punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.” In the same article, she lays out how the prison featured in the documentary she mentions — Angola for Life: Rehabilitation and Reform Inside the Louisiana State Penitentiary — had begun as a plantation run by enslaved Black people. It, along with some other prisons in the South, shifted from being a plantation worked by Black bodies to a prison worked by them as national laws changed.
They made this shift as part of the Black codes — laws put into effect immediately after the Civil War ended that dictated what formally enslaved people could do. These codes saw to it that Black people newly freed by the 13th Amendment could be jailed for arbitrary things like “walking without purpose.” Once they were jailed, they could be leased to individuals and companies through a practice known as “convict leasing,” which generated significant revenue for the Southern economy and was even more brutal than slavery. Interestingly, arrests that led to convict leasing increased as labor needs increased, and even subjected those deemed as innocent by courts to forced labor if they couldn’t pay court fees.
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