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Prison-Based Gerrymandering…

One of the more pernicious political tools that corporatist conservatives and others have created since at least the American civil war, has been the transition of de jure slavery into the modern form of the criminal justice system.

A variety of factors have driven this process. Prisons have largely become warehouses of surplus labor, prison industry, the disenfranchisement of urban voters, and gerrymandering into rural conservative districts.

Prior to the civil war, Slave Codes ruled the disposition of Africans as far as state law was concerned. Slaves were simply chattel…the property of plantation masters who determined their living, work, and any punitive sanctions.

At the conclusion of the civil war (1865), Congress passed compromise legislation—the 13th Amendmentwhich outlawed slavery and involuntary servitude, “except as a punishment for crime…”

The South lost no time legislating numerous Black Codesbased on the former Slave Codes.  Jim Crow segregation and dehumanization laws transferred control from plantation masters to the criminal justice system of the states.

By 1877, within a dozen years after the civil war, the South had reestablished total control.

The Black Codes criminalized virtually any behavior any law official wished to impose, such as loitering, vagrancy, disorderly conduct, drunkenness, “disrespect,” etc.

(Jim Crow was still in full swing when I was there in the ’60s, a hundred years after the civil war. In prison today, “eyeballing” guards and staff is as serious an infraction as it was in the Old South.)

The Codes also criminalized a black man’s failure to have a job, register yearly with the sheriff, travel outside of one’s home district in search of higher wages or other jobs, and relocate without lawful permission.

1913 US Mail post-card...

Enticement” laws were passed making it a serious violation for others (to wit: Yankees traveling South) to offer jobs to blacks.

As the South had few prisons, sheriffs imposed fines in lieu of incarceration. The “miscreants” would then be auctioned to local farmers to work off the fines, along with a hefty profit margin for the farmer.

If a business required “workers” on a project that was otherwise too onerous for whites, the sheriff would often round up the requisite number of local blacks to fill the order. Charges were often arbitrary and both the sheriff and the court profited from payments.

Of course, within a short period of time, profiteering entrepreneurs would make contracts with counties and states for prisoners, which they would then sub-contract to others. Convict-leasing led to fortunes for some.

Rockefeller’s Jacksonville-Key West railroad was built by such leased prisoners. The Navy received much of its turpentine–right up thru World War II–from prisoners often worked to death in the Florida pine wilds.

(The US Navy (and other military) continues the practice of forced prison labor thru private contractors with the federal Bureau of Prisons today.)

Southern prisons were mostly modeled after the old slave plantations such as Parchman in Mississippi, and Angola in Louisiana.

Conditions of the prisoners, since the leasers were not responsible for their upkeep and had no financial stake in them, were often “Worse Than Slavery….”

Three of the foremost groups in the US that address this continuing phenomenon–both news-wise and as activists–are the Prison Legal News,, and Prison Policy Initiative.

A sub-org of the Prison Policy Initiative, Prisoners of the Census, features a paper written by John C. Drake of Washington University School of Law’s, Journal of Law & Policy, entitled, “Locked Up and Counted Out: Bringing an End to Prison-based Gerrymandering (2011).”

This nation’s prison complex has become the largest such gulag in the history of the planet. Counting juveniles, immigrants and others, along with the vast number of jails and prisons, there are some 3 million souls incarcerated at any given moment in America.

Only two states, Maine and Vermont, allow prisoners to vote. Most reinstate voting post-incarceration, and some still disenfranchise felons for life.

The essence of the Drake report deals with the fact that most prisons in the US reside in rural conservative districts, while their prisoners overwhelmingly come from urban Democratic areas.

Given the US Census Bureau’s “usual-residence rule,” people are counted where their home is…not where they might be at any given moment.

However, with prisoners, the Census Bureau historically counts them where they’re incarcerated, not where their home is and to which some 97% return.

Scalia's verdict...

Small wonder that Republican conservatives vie for prisons in their districts and legislate a myriad of laws and draconian sentences to increase their population.

“Four states have so far had the wisdom to pass legislation” to end this practice, according to Peter Wagner of the Prison Policy Initiative. These include New York, Maryland, Delaware and California. A number of other states have introduced such legislation.

In the case of New York, a Prison Policy Initiative study revealed from US Census Bureau data that 81% of the state’s prison population is black or Latino (overwhemingly urban Democratic), while 98% of prisoners are housed in white rural districts.

The NAACP just introduced a report to the United Nation’s Human Rights Council in Geneva, Switzerland, calling for a formal investigation of US violations in the suppression of minority voting.

While the UN has no formal powers over US domestic perfidy, it does expose American hypocrisy to the world.

Dr. Publico

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