Rationale

 

Forced labor has been a cancer in the history of the United States since the very beginning. The first colonial settlers devised various schemes to enslave the indigenous inhabitants of the land but enjoyed little success because of the fierce resistance of the natives and the vast wilderness in which they could establish sanctuaries. Hence colonial settlers turned to the importation and exploitation of indentured servants from Europe and enslaved Africans to serve their labor needs. The first enslaved Africans arrived in Virginia in 1619 signaling the beginning of an 6institution that lasted for 246 years.Quite paradoxically, the United States of America was founded as a slave nation during a period when human liberty was waxing and the institution of slavery was waning. Notwithstanding this global revolutionary trend, the practice of slavery in the new republic survived for another 90 years.

The American Civil War did not resolve the issue. The 13th Amendment to the US Constitution, ratified at the end of the war, did not completely abolish slavery:

“Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted (emphasis added), shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”

But the exception has provided a loophole in the law that has devastated generations of African Americans. In the words of W.E.B. Dubois,

“The slave went free; stood a brief moment in the sun; then moved back again toward slavery.”

The leasing of convicts, many of them ex-slaves, to private entrepreneurs began in the immediate post-war years and and continued into the 20th century. Prison reformers shut down convict leasing over a hundred years ago but the continuing practice of forced labor inside America’s behemoth prison system today is proof that the cancer has not been cured.

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