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Prison Industry History (1)…

There are episodes in the histories of all peoples that are joyful and shameful.  Some to be praised and commemorated, and others seemingly best forgotten, or worse, blamed on the “other.”

Worse Than Slavery…

One of the best forgotten would seem to be the immediate period after the American Civil War.  And, in fact, much of it seems to have been, indeed, “forgotten.”  Too bad.  It’s true: History forgotten is history repeated.

When I was in my sixth year of imprisonment in the contemporary American gulag–currently at three million and still growing–a friend sent me a just-published book, “Worse Than Slavery,” Parchman Farm and the Ordeal of Jim Crow Justice, by David M. Oshinsky (1996).

If one has a personal library that includes any American history, “Worse Than Slavery” is definitely one of those to include.  If my 20+ years in the federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) has any positive meaning, knowing how we came to this point is certainly one of them.

Naturally, for me, my main interest is to understand, not only my own individual history—thus my pursuit and accomplishment of a doctorate in psychology (PsyD)–but the history of the institution that has been my master for all these years.

I’ve always found it pretty amazing and ironic that most prisoners themselves have little concept of their own predicates and condition, much less that of the bureaucracy that rules their lives, their families, and indeed, much of society.

David M. Oshinsky is a distinguished professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.  His book documents more than the role of Parchman—the Mississippi State Penitentiary—in the pre- and post-Civil War period.

In addition to the photos, the prison, state, and police records, the oral history, folklore and prison songs, the notes and index that Professor Oshinsky provides gives one an all-around foundation and working knowledge to how we got to where we are today and where to look for more.

We can start with the fact that criminal law and justice did not apply to blacks in the antebellum south.  No less an authority than US Supreme Court in Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857) documents that fact.  Leading up to that war (1861-65), African slaves were not considered to be citizens, were lawfully considered to be in the same category as farm animals, and thus less than fully human—or so many told themselves.  Slaves were the property of their masters, and completely at their rule.

Jim Crow was all about both creating and enforcing segregationist law, as well as dehumanizing African Americans.  For more than 100 years after the Civil War, that reality prevailed in large measure.

One of the axioms of the American Tribune is that what is created for the least, ends up applying to the rest of us…sooner or later.  This history has proven that truism with a vengeance.

At the conclusion of the war in 1865, the people of the South—black and white–found themselves in dire survival condition.  The Union Army occupied the South and the federal Freedmen’s Bureau enforced compliance for black emancipation.  Whites and blacks found themselves in competition for the same scarce resources.

While the Party of Lincoln, the Republicans, enacted the 13th Amendment at the conclusion of the war thus outlawing slavery, they reached a sort of compromise by adding an exception clause for those convicted of a crime.  That Constitutional Amendment became the lawful foundation for today’s reality.

I will continue this series over the next couple of days.

   Dr. Publico

Category: JimCrow, OshinskyDavidM
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