On February 17, 2021, the House Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Civil Liberties held a hearing on H.R. 40, the Commission to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African-Americans Act. The proposed commission would study the legacy of slavery in the United States by examining the role of state and federal governments in upholding slavery and past and present racial discrimination against American descendents of enslaved Africans. The commission would also be tasked with making recommendations regarding compensation and atonement for slavery.
The late Congressman John Conyers first introduced H.R. 40 on the heels of the passage of the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, which endowed Japanese Americans affected by incarceration and forced relocation in World War II. Since then, the legislation has been introduced at congressional hearings every year, but languished until 2020 when it gained momentum amid anti-racism protests sparked by George Floyd’s murder.
On April 14, 2021, two months after the initial hearing, the U.S. House of Representatives’ Judiciary Committee voted to move H.R. 40 to the House floor for full consideration, a monumental step forward in the case for reparations.
The name H.R. 40 refers to “40 acres and a mule,” the unfulfilled promise the U.S. government made to newly-freed enslaved people at the end of the Civil War in 1865. (Read more here)
As an incarcerated person of 31+ years, who comes from an intersectionality of marginalized groups, I wanted to offer a unique lens from which I view the topic of reparations.
I will begin by responding to people such as Senator Mitch McConnell, who in 2019 said that slavery is “something that happened 150 years ago,” and has nothing to with today.
• Under the U.S. Constitution, and most state constitutions, slavery is currently allowed if the person has been convicted of a crime. It is the “loophole” for modern-day inservitude.
• When I read “The Souls of Black Folk,” by W.E.B. DuBois, I saw many old practices of DuBois’ day currently being played out in my life.
• As an incarcerated person, my body is wholly subject to the whims of the prison guards. Through the years, I have repeatedly seen Abu Ghraib (sic) played out right here in America on my peers. During COVID, as I watched nine of my peers die in a month’s time, the neglect, indifference, and apathy was a reminder that we are worthless and disposable. It was a poignant reinforcement of the daily message we receive, verbally or indirectly through mistreatment. Prisons are not about “corrections” but collective traumatization that is revealed through a persistent 60+% recidivism rate.
• My labor is exploited and profited upon. My life, my body, my very existence has literally been for the benefit of others. Guards like to tell us that our incarceration paid for their houses, put their kids through college, etc.
• I am forced to exist in an environment that is killing me slowly. A 2016 study led by sociologist Christopher Wildeman found that each year spent in prison takes two years off an individual’s life expectancy. This is likely because of unhealthy and unsustainable living conditions imposed on prisoners (e.g., high salt intake due to long-term consumption of processed foods; canteens that only sell junk food; lack of exercise due to lockdowns and modified programs; chronic stress due to racist or abusive guards; internecine physical violence due to an adverse structure and an anti-social and generally adverse penal culture).
• It is a well known fact that people of color are disproportionately imprisoned, and for longer periods of time, than their counterparts. This pattern affects our ability to procreate, which affects our general populations in a myriad of adverse ways. As a whole, modern prisons have the same effect as antebellum slavery: creating dependence, exacting subservience, reinforcing superiority of a particular race (most guards are White, while most prisoners are people of color. The guards who are people of color fall in line with the culture).
• Like in slavery, we are labeled as incorribgible, violent, gang members, etc. even though the physical structure of prisons influences and even reinforces predictable violence through deprivation.
• Our property can be confiscated if the item is deemed to have been altered. For example, a cracked radio can be taken away even if it still functions. Recently my watch band broke and an officer confiscated the entire watch. As a population coming predominately from poverty, we try to save our property until it becomes completely inoperable. Confiscating operable property because it is flawed and requiring us to repeatedly have to replace items that we, or our families, cannot afford, is an undue hardship.
• My word against an officer is devalued and discounted. I have no rights (that I can prove), and I am constantly controlled, instead of being taught to be an autonomous being. We feel like slaves.
There is no question that people who commit offenses should be held accountable, but as a civil and morally-guarded society, we should want to help those who are sick by providing a healthy and humane environment where incarcerated persons can transform themselves and become better human beings, where we incarcerated persons can become genuine contributors to the larger society. The current prison structure, extended from slavery, convict leasing, and Jim Crow, does nothing more than mirror these old and shameful relics.
(Additional reporting by Elena Townsend-Lerdo)
Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. The Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned. The work is lightly edited but has not been otherwise fact-checked.