Slavery in US Prisons

Interview with Robert King & Terry Kupers

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.

— 13th Amendment, 1865

An 18,000-acre former slave plantation in rural Louisiana, the infamous Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola is the largest prison in the U.S. Today, with African Americans composing over 75% of Angola’s 5,108 prisoners, prison guards known as “free men,” a forced 40-hour workweek, and four cents an hour as minimum wage, the resemblance to antebellum U.S. slavery is striking. In the early 1970s, it was even worse, as prisoners were forced to work 96-hour weeks (16 hours a day/six days a week) with two cents an hour as minimum wage. Officially considered (according to its own website) the “Bloodiest Prison in the South” at this time, violence from guards and between prisoners was endemic. Prison authorities sanctioned prisoner rape, and according to former Prison Warden Murray Henderson, the prison guards actually helped facilitate a brutal system of sexual slavery where the younger and physically weaker prisoners were bought and sold into submission. As part of the notorious “inmate trusty guard” system, responsible for killing 40 prisoners and seriously maiming 350 between 1972-75, some prisoners were given state-issued weapons and ordered to enforce this sexual slavery, as well as the prison’s many other injustices. Life at Angola was living hell — a 20th century slave plantation.

Black Panthers Robert Hillary King, Albert Woodfox, and Herman Wallace are known as the “Angola Three.” Woodfox and Wallace were co-founders of a Black Panther Party chapter at Angola in the early 1970s. These Panthers saw life at Angola as modern-day slavery and fought back with non-violent hunger strikes and work strikes. Prison authorities were outraged by the BPP’s organizing, and retaliated by framing these three BPP organizers for murders that they did not commit. Woodfox and Wallace were both framed for the 1972 stabbing death of white prison guard Brent Miller, and have now spent over 37 years in solitary confinement. King was framed for a 1973 murder of another prisoner, and spent 29 years in solitary confinement until he was released from in 2001 after his conviction was overturned.

This new video released by Angola 3 News is the third part of an interview conducted with Robert King and Terry Kupers in October 2009, in Oakland, CA. when King was in town for Black Panther History Month. In the first two parts King and Kupers discussed the psychological impact of imprisonment (watch here). In this new video, Robert King and Dr. Terry Kupers, argue that slavery persists today in Angola and other U.S. prisons, citing the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which legalizes slavery in prisons as “a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.” As King says: “You can be legally incarcerated but morally innocent.”

Dr. Terry Kupers, M.D., M.S.P. wrote the introduction to Robert King’s 2008 autobiography entitled From the Bottom of the Heap: The Autobiography of Robert Hillary King, and is Institute Professor at The Wright Institute in Berkeley, California. Dr. Kupers is a psychiatrist with a background in psychoanalytic psychotherapy, forensics and social and community psychiatry. His forensic psychiatry experience includes testimony in several large class action litigations concerning jail and prison conditions, sexual abuse, and the quality of mental health services inside correctional facilities. He is a consultant to Human Rights Watch, and author of the 1999 book entitled Prison Madness: The Mental Health Crisis Behind Bars and What We Must Do About It.

This video features archival photos from the Pulitzer Prize-winning book by Wall Street Journal editor Douglas A. Blackmon, entitled Slavery By Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II. The book’s website states:

In this groundbreaking historical expose, Douglas A. Blackmon brings to light one of the most shameful chapters in American history—when a cynical new form of slavery was resurrected from the ashes of the Civil War and re-imposed on hundreds of thousands of African-Americans until the dawn of World War II.

Under laws enacted specifically to intimidate blacks, tens of thousands of African Americans were arbitrarily arrested, hit with outrageous fines, and charged for the costs of their own arrests. With no means to pay these ostensible “debts,” prisoners were sold as forced laborers to coal mines, lumber camps, brickyards, railroads, quarries and farm plantations. Thousands of other African Americans were simply seized by southern landowners and compelled into years of involuntary servitude. Government officials leased falsely imprisoned blacks to small-town entrepreneurs, provincial farmers, and dozens of corporations—including U.S. Steel Corp.—looking for cheap and abundant labor. Armies of “free” black men labored without compensation, were repeatedly bought and sold, and were forced through beatings and physical torture to do the bidding of white masters for decades after the official abolition of American slavery.

The neoslavery system exploited legal loopholes and federal policies which discouraged prosecution of whites for continuing to hold black workers against their wills. As it poured millions of dollars into southern government treasuries, the new slavery also became a key instrument in the terrorization of African Americans seeking full participation in the U.S. political system.

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11 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. Bartwilson said on February 10th, 2010 at 11:17am #

    How could this prison get away with such a terrible thing as imprisoning these innocent people for as many years as they have? Since we know those two other men were innocent, we should try to set them free like the third. They were innocent, and they have spent almost forty years in solitary confinement. If the third man was able to get out, they should be able to as well. That man has every right to write that book and I’m certainly glad that he did. Hopefully, it will be enough to free his fellow accused.
    As awful as this sounds, this lowered my respect for this nation a bit. We brag about how righteous and fair we are because of our constitution and whatnot, when there are probably more prisons that treat their prisoners similarly (if even if is not as bad). Guards should not allow this abuse happening amongst the prisoners to happen either.
    This really, in a way resembles our history’s slavery. Not all slaves were African American then, and not all of these prisoners are African American, yet they are all getting abused. I pray that this prison gets either reformed or shut down and the prisoners sent to a less abusive prison, for no man has the right to be treated as such or rot in a prison for something they did not do. Way to go Black Panthers for having the courage to speak the truth!

  2. dan e said on February 10th, 2010 at 1:07pm #

    What happened to the “Tea Partyists” who objected to being called “Tea Baggers”, who were, they said, trying to “reach out” to what they called their left? Was that just an attempted snowjob that’s been dropped for “not selling well”?
    If any of these folks are still around, I’d hope to see them weigh in on the Angola slave plantation issue? Giving us a thread of hope that they aren’t ALL just another bunch of white supremacists?

  3. Deadbeat said on February 11th, 2010 at 4:03am #

    yet another reason why discussion of a left-right coalition is nonsense

  4. Danny Ray said on February 11th, 2010 at 6:30am #

    Hello Dan E,
    Why would the “Tea Partyist” have anything to do with prisons in La? What we want is the government (both parties) to quit spending money we do not have. What that has to do with prisons I would like to know?

    In addition, as for me, I have been to Angola Prison and think that the articles are pure BS. Yes, it is not a pleasant place, for the love of God it is a prison it’s not supposed to be nice. Like every other story in the world somewhere between the stories told by both sides is the truth. As for the case of the three panthers, I do not know the real story and I would hazard a guess that you do not either.

  5. dan e said on February 11th, 2010 at 11:26am #

    thank you danny ray for exposing yourself so completely and unmistakeably as the racist scumbag I’ve always known you are.

  6. Danny Ray said on February 11th, 2010 at 12:36pm #

    Dan E , your welcome. But you never answered the question.

  7. Deadbeat said on February 11th, 2010 at 12:37pm #

    The Angola 3 are political prisoners. Apparently the Tea Baggers are in denial that political prisoners exist in the U.S. Here’s an article by Glen Ford of Black Agenda Report that accurately describes the Tea Partyers as who they truly are — WHITE NATIONALISTS.

  8. Danny Ray said on February 11th, 2010 at 12:48pm #

    OK I just read the artical by Glen Ford, Actually what does that prove. He states no facts just his opinion, There’s no facts given it’s nothing more than an editorial
    I will ask you, since Dan E dosen’t want to answer except with a shout of invective, why should the tea party have anything to do with prison condition?

  9. Deadbeat said on February 11th, 2010 at 2:33pm #

    I do want to make an observation here. Beverly who occasionally post here has an excellent response on the BAR – White Nationalist article. She opens stating that she doesn’t get too worked up about it and that the Tea Baggers may be the only thing that keeps Obama health care scheme from getting passed which is more than she can say about the Left.

    Her remarks are an indictment of the Left and I have to agree. Also I find that the Left has done little in maintain information and pressure on the U.S. Penal System as they sojourn the rest of the world. I find it odd that they miss the oppression right in their own back yard. Has Amy Goodman ever done a report from Riker’s Island?

    On the other hand I do have the feeling that the Left’s focus on White Nationalists is also an attempt to divert from the more virulent racism of Zionism. The Left interest in White Nationalist doesn’t match the level of DISINTEREST in confronting Zionism which is in the HALLS of POWER.

    Thus dissidents need to maintain pressure on the Left to increase the level interest of confronting Zionism to the same level it is “outraged” by white nationalism.

  10. dan e said on February 11th, 2010 at 2:43pm #

    “danny ray” is of no interest, except maybe as comic relief, but what DOES interest me is that the DV editors decided to post the article by that fellow claiming Green Party credentials which started this whole discussion of “Tea Baggers”/Tea Partyists etc.
    I made an effort to respond to the person who objected to the term “Tea Baggers”. I disassociated myself from that particular term and its pornographic connotations. But I haven’t seen any further comments coming from the objector, OR from the author of the piece. Maybe I wasn’t watching, maybe I missed something?
    Or maybe Glen Ford is right, none of these Tea Baggers are worth a passing glance. There does seem to be a pretty radical disconnect between how Ford sees it and how the DV editors perceive the Tea phenomenon.
    Maybe I should go into my take on it a little farther: at one time in Weimar Germany, the Labor Movement was the biggest thing on the political landscape. But eventually it collapsed & was replaced by the National Socialist German Workers Party, the NASDAP i.e. the Nazis.
    Afterwards this development became the subject of extensive recriminations between the Second International “Socialists” and the post-WWII Comintern-aligned parties, with each side claiming that the other was responsible for the failure to mount a united resistance to the Nazis.
    Jumping to the chase, I myself try to lead over backwards to be sure I’m not turning a deaf ear to any genuine attempt to forge a united resistance to the forces behind our rapidly deteriorating status quo, to the imposition of global state terrorism and permanent war.
    So I applaud the joint statements by various individuals & groups opposed to the worst of what Obama et al are doing. But at the same time I’m not going to stop criticizing anything I find misguided or wrong.
    My experience is that people come to political consciousness in stages. That’s certainly true in my own case — I have to confess I let myself be conned into supporting Run Jesse Run and a bunch of local Minority Democrat careerists & opportunists. So I don’ t want to dismiss the possibility that there could be persons just roused from political slumber by the bailout ripoffs, for instance, who may after “further investigation” develop a more sophisticated analysis than they were drawn to initially.

    So to those who object to being called Tea Baggers, and to those writers & editors who think such folks deserve a hearing: the ball is now in your court. Yes? Yes? I’m waiting…

  11. kalidas said on February 11th, 2010 at 6:24pm #

    As usual, Deadbeat at least sees the root and takes swipes at it.
    More than can be said about most every other critics/observers I’ve read.

    For the last twenty years I’ve seen good time Charlie plastic bananas, almost exclusively.

    Excluding, of course, the dish ran away with the spoon types.
    Really not much help there, either.