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Crops stretch to the horizon. Black bodies pepper the landscape, hunched over as they work the fields. Officers on horseback, armed, oversee the workers.
To the untrained eye, the scenes in Angola for Life: Rehabilitation and Reform Inside the Louisiana State Penitentiary. an Atlantic documentary filmed on an old Southern slave-plantation-turned-prison, could have been shot 150 years ago. The imagery haunts, and the stench of slavery and racial oppression lingers through the 13 minutes of footage.
The film tells two overlapping stories: One is of accomplishment against incredible odds, of a man who stepped into the most violent maximum-security prison in the nation and gave the men there—discarded and damned—what society didn’t: hope, education, and a moral compass. Burl Cain, the warden of Angola Prison, which is in Louisiana, has created a controversial model for rehabilitation. Through work and religion, they learn to help each other, and try to become better fathers to their children on the outside. Perhaps the lucky few even find redemption.
But there is a second storyline running alongside the first, which raises disquieting questions about how America treats those on the inside as less than fully human. Those troubling opening scenes of the documentary offer visual proof of a truth that America has worked hard to ignore: In a sense, slavery never ended at Angola; it was reinvented.
Some viewers of the video might be surprised to learn that inmates at Angola, once cleared by the prison doctor, can be forced to work under threat of punishment as severe as solitary confinement. Legally, this labor may be totally uncompensated; more typically inmates are paid meagerly—as little as two cents per hour—for their full-time work in the fields, manufacturing warehouses, or kitchens. How is this legal? Didn’t the Thirteenth Amendment abolish all forms of slavery and involuntary servitude in this country?
Not quite. In the shining promise of freedom that was the Thirteenth Amendment, a sharp exception was carved out. Section 1 of the Amendment provides: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted. shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” Simply put: Incarcerated persons have no constitutional rights in this arena; they can be forced to work as punishment for their crimes.
Convict leasing was cheaper than slavery, since farm owners and companies did not have to worry about the health of their workers.
Angola’s farm operations and other similar prison industries have ancestral roots in the black chattel slavery of the South. Specifically, the proliferation of prison labor camps grew during the Reconstruction era following the Civil War, a time when southern states established large prisons throughout the region that they quickly filled, primarily with black men. Many of these prisons had very recently been slave plantations, Angola and Mississippi State Penitentiary (known as Parchman Farm) among them. Other prisons began convict-leasing programs, where, for a leasing fee, the state would lease out the labor of incarcerated workers as hired work crews. Convict leasing was cheaper than slavery, since farm owners and companies did not have to worry at all about the health of their workers.
In this new era of prison industry, the criminal “justice” system, the state determined the size of the worker pool. Scores of recently freed slaves and their descendants now labored to generate revenue for the state under a Jim Crow regime.
More than a century later, our prison labor system has only grown. We now incarcerate more than 2.2 million people, with the largest prison population in the world, and the second highest incarceration rate per capita. Our prison populations remain racially skewed. With few exceptions, inmates are required to work if cleared by medical professionals at the prison. Punishments for refusing to do so include solitary confinement, loss of earned good time, and revocation of family visitation. For this forced labor, prisoners earn pennies per hour, if anything at all.
Over the decades, prison labor has expanded in scope and reach. Incarcerated workers, laboring within in-house operations or through convict-leasing partnerships with for-profit businesses, have been involved with mining, agriculture, and all manner of manufacturing from making military weapons to sewing garments for Victoria’s Secret. Prison programs extend into the services sector; some incarcerated workers staff call centers.
Given the scope and scale of prison labor in the modern era, one could reasonably expect some degree of compliance with modern labor standards. However, despite the hard-won protections secured by the labor movement over the past 100 years, incarcerated workers do not enjoy most of these protections.
Employment law makes the status of the worker as an “employee” a critical distinction. If you are an employee, you get protections; if not, you don’t. Courts look to the character of the relationship between the parties and aim to assess, first, whether the employer has sufficient control over the work conditions and, second, whether the relationship is primarily of an economic character.
Incarcerated workers are not expressly excluded from the definition of employee in workers’ protection statutes like the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) or the National Labor Relations Act. However, in the cases where incarcerated workers have sued their prison-employers to enforce minimum wage laws or the FLSA, courts have ruled that the relationship between the penitentiary and the inmate worker is not primarily economic; thus, the worker is not protected under the statutes. By judging the relationship between prisons and incarcerated workers to be of a primarily social or penological nature, the courts have placed wage and working condition protections out of reach for incarcerated workers.
Incarcerated persons or, more specifically, the “duly convicted,” lack a constitutional right to be free of forced servitude. Further, this forced labor is not checked by many of the protections enjoyed by workers laboring in the exact same jobs on the other side of the 20-foot barbed-wire electric fence.
Angola for Life raises questions about the potential rehabilitative nature of prison labor. Work, warden Cain posits, is an important part of the rehabilitative process. Prison labor provides a way to pay society back for the costs of incarceration, as well as a pathway to correct deviant behavior and possibly find personal redemption.
Meaningful work helps cultivate self-esteem, self worth, and the sense that one’s existence on this Earth matters. Yet, while some form of work for the incarcerated may be important, the current form is troubling. These workers are vulnerable to the kind of workplace exploitation that America has otherwise deemed inhumane.
Another justification for compulsory prison labor comes from a fairness concern. Why should prisoners sit with idle hands when the rest of us must work to put a roof over our heads and food in our bellies? Perhaps the low-to-no wages paid to incarcerated workers are a form of pay garnishment, a sort of compensation for the costs of room and board?
Yet those costs are not fairly calculated. The American criminal-justice system is rife with fees that shift the financial burden of incarceration to the charged and convicted and their families. Like the “company store” in isolated mining towns which overcharged workers of old, prisoners are left open to similar forms of exploitation.
Finally, some would argue that regardless of its harsh nature, prison labor is simply a matter of just deserts. Don’t workers behind bars deserve less than equal treatment? After all, they are murderers, criminals, all manner of sinners and deviants. The appeal of this argument lies in its simplicity: People who do not behave like decent human beings do not merit being treated like decent human beings.
There is much to say of the inadequacy of this sort of eye-for-an-eye philosophy and the importance of resisting such a reflex in the realm of state action and public policy. As Ta-Nehisi Coates described in his Atlantic cover story. a series of risk factors—including mental illness, illiteracy, poverty, and drug addiction—drastically increase the chance that one will end up among the incarcerated. By one report’s measure. more than half of the inmates in jails and prisons in the United States are suffering from mental illness of some kind. These risk factors are social-welfare and public-health issues. America makes the choice to respond to these outcomes with the penal system, but there are other ways.
There is one further reason to be concerned about the system of prison labor. A brief moment of dialogue in the first few minutes of the video between the inmate driving a buggy and the Atlantic ’s Jeffrey Goldberg hints at this:
Maybe we believe him. Likely we don’t. Whether we believe this particular inmate or not, ample experience and research point us to an uncomfortable reality: There are innocent men at Angola. We don’t know which they are, but we do know they are there, and they are disproportionately likely to be black. In American criminal justice, “duly convicted” doesn’t always mean what we wish it to.
Individual stories are compelling. For the slave toiling in the antebellum south, a kindly master was a godsend. Burl Cain may be the very best that the inmates of Angola prison could hope for, a rare thoughtful, kindly, creative sort of warden. He is almost certainly a man trying to do the best he can for a population damned and forgotten by society with the resources he has available.
But individual narratives are not enough. When we focus on the individual, it’s easy to miss the context. The context here is undeniable, and it is made clear by the very first frames of Angola for Life .
As the camera zooms out and pans over fields of black bodies bent in work and surveyed by a guard, the picture that emerges is one of slavery. It is one of a “justice” system riddled with racial oppression. It is one of private business taking advantage of these disenfranchised, vulnerable workers. It is one of an entire caste of men relegated, as they have long been relegated, to labor for free, condemned to sow in perpetuity so that others might reap.
Ta-Nehisi Coates speaks to PBS NewsHour about Obama’s childhood, his legacy, and how he connected with the American people.
Whitney Benns is a writer based in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
The country’s first black president never pursued policies bold enough to close the racial wealth gap.
Over the next few weeks, The Atlantic will be publishing a series of responses to Ta-Nehisi Coates’s story "My President Was Black ." Readers are invited to send their own responses to [email protected] and we will post a sample of your feedback. You can read other responses to the story from Atlantic readers and contributors here .
Born in 1953, I am a child of the waning years of legal segregation in the United States. My parents, on the other hand, spent about 40 years of their lives under Jim Crow, and all of my grandparents lived most of their lives under official American apartheid. At the time of Barack Obama’s election to the presidency in 2008, my mother and all four of my grandparents were deceased. But my father was alive and well—and absolutely thrilled to have lived to see the election of a black man as president of the United States. Usually deeply cynical about American politics and politicians, my dad could not comprehend my deep reservations about Barack Obama’s leadership. Indeed, he viewed any criticism of Obama as bringing aid and comfort to white supremacists.
A history of the first African American White House—and of what came next
In the waning days of President Barack Obama’s administration, he and his wife, Michelle, hosted a farewell party, the full import of which no one could then grasp. It was late October, Friday the 21st, and the president had spent many of the previous weeks, as he would spend the two subsequent weeks, campaigning for the Democratic presidential nominee, Hillary Clinton. Things were looking up. Polls in the crucial states of Virginia and Pennsylvania showed Clinton with solid advantages. The formidable GOP strongholds of Georgia and Texas were said to be under threat. The moment seemed to buoy Obama. He had been light on his feet in these last few weeks, cracking jokes at the expense of Republican opponents and laughing off hecklers. At a rally in Orlando on October 28, he greeted a student who would be introducing him by dancing toward her and then noting that the song playing over the loudspeakers—the Gap Band’s “Outstanding”—was older than she was.
The main source of meaning in American life is a meritocratic competition that makes those who struggle feel inferior.
What is happening to America’s white working class?
The group’s important, and perhaps decisive. role in this year’s presidential election sparked a slew of commentary focused on, on the one hand, its nativism, racism, and sexism. and, on the other, its various economic woes . While there are no simple explanations for the desperation and anger visible in many predominantly white working-class communities, perhaps the most astute and original diagnosis came from the rabbi and activist Michael Lerner, who, in assessing Donald Trump’s victory, looked from a broader vantage point than most. Underneath the populist ire, he wrote. was a suffering “rooted in the hidden injuries of class and in the spiritual crisis that the global competitive marketplace generates.”
The Atlantic ’s editors and writers share their favorite titles—new, classic, or somewhere in between—from a year of reading.
Roadside Picnic is a book about aliens in which no aliens appear. Rather, one character hypothesizes, aliens seemed to have zipped carelessly around Earth and strewed it with trash—like roadside picnickers leaving behind wrappers and empty bottles. The scientists, smugglers, and other profiteers so drawn to these alien objects are but ants crawling through the picnic crumbs. Is this a book that makes you contemplate the smallness of humans? Absolutely. Don’t be fooled by the seemingly breezy title. Roadside Picnic was first written in Russian in 1972, and it is the very loose inspiration for the movie Stalker. An afterward to the 2012 English translation describes Soviet efforts to censor the book, which seems somehow newly relevant in America.
A nonproliferation expert puts the president-elect’s latest remarks in context
Donald Trump tweeted something controversial today. After Twitter controversies involving Boeing, terror attacks, and former President Bill Clinton, Trump has directed his attention towards the American nuclear arsenal. Thursday morning, Trump tweeted that “The United States must greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability until such time as the world comes to its senses regarding nukes.” The impetus behind the tweet is unknown, but Trump may have been responding to the concerns of Boeing and Lockheed Martin executives after a Wednesday meeting, or to a rather similarly-worded statement from Russian President Vladimir Putin early Thursday.
The United States must greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability until such time as the world comes to its senses regarding nukes
The government is dismantling a dormant program that was used to track people from Muslim-majority countries.
The Department of Homeland Security will take apart the vestiges of a controversial program that was used to register and track visitors from Muslim-majority countries, a move which will make it more difficult for Donald Trump to instate a registry system for Muslims once he takes office next month.
The change, which comes just four weeks before the end of President Obama’s last term, removes the skeleton of a program that hasn’t been in use since 2011. When it was active, the “special registration” program—the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System, or NSEERS—had two parts, and applied only to people from 25 countries named by DHS. Twenty-four of them were Muslim-majority countries.
Ta-Nehisi Coates speaks to PBS NewsHour about Obama’s childhood, his legacy, and how he connected with the American people.
His tone and temperament haven’t changed since the campaign, and he’s poised to enter office with historically low approval ratings.
On the night in December 2000 when the U.S. Supreme Court stopped the Florida recount and effectively decided the presidential race for George W. Bush, the Texas governor delivered a nationally televised speech soon after Al Gore called him to concede.
Speaking from the stately chamber of the Texas House of Representatives, Bush seemed tentative, even nervous. But his message to a nation bitterly divided by his controversial victory was clear. “Here in a place where Democrats have the majority, Republicans and Democrats have worked together to do what is right for the people we represent,” Bush said. “The spirit of cooperation I have seen in this hall is what is needed in Washington, D.C. … Our nation must rise above a house divided.”
“I went to a job interview after my first daughter was born and cried the whole way home.”
This is the third story in a seven-part series looking at women’s ambitions in the years following college.
When we began interviewing our former classmates at Northwestern, we expected to encounter a few stay-at-home mothers. Even though no one in college had explicitly stated that they planned on stopping work to raise children, we understood that many women make this choice for a range of reasons. The Pew Research Center reports that 10 percent of highly educated mothers (those who earned a master’s degree or greater) stay home. We found that for the 37 women in our sorority’s 1993 graduating class, the percent was more than double: One-quarter are at home raising children—10 people, six of whom hold advanced degrees. These numbers surprised us, to put it mildly. We weren’t the only ones.
From fortified foods to nutrition labels, the legacy of an early financial crisis lives on in kitchens across the United States.
It’s difficult to imagine that modern Americans, at the zenith of an era of self-styled gastronomy and rampant food waste. could have much in common with their Depression-era forebears who subsisted (barely) on utilitarian liver loaves and creamed lima beans. But trendy excess notwithstanding, the legacy of the 1929 financial crisis lives on: From the way that ingredients and produce wend their paths to American kitchens year-round, to the tone taken by public intellectuals and elected officials about food consumption and diet.
The nation’s hunger and habits during the Great Depression are of particular interest to Jane Ziegelman and Andrew Coe, whose book A Square Meal offers a culinary history of an era not known for culinary glamour. The pair not only trace what Americans ate—when they were fortunate enough to secure food—but also the divergent philosophies that guided government strategy in the battle against widespread hunger. One enduring, easily caricatured figure of the crisis is former President Herbert Hoover, a self-made tycoon who knew deprivation as an orphan in Iowa and whose rise to the White House was hastened by his heroic work to alleviate hunger in Europe following the First World War. “He was the great humanitarian,” Coe told me recently over breakfast. “He had the skills, he had the knowledge, he’d done it before. Everything was there.”
In a short animation, Barack Obama speaks with Ta-Nehisi Coates about his road to the White House.