The History of Black Incarceration Is Longer Than You Think

Recent scholarship has explored the roots of modern mass incarceration. Launched in the 1980s, the war on drugs and the emergence of private, for-profit prison systems led to the imprisonment of many minorities. Other scholarship has shown that the modern mass incarceration of black Americans was preceded by a 19th century surge in black imprisonment during the Reconstruction era. With the abolition of slavery in 1865, southern whites used the legal system and the carceral state to impose racial, social and economic control over the newly liberated black population. The consequences were stark. In Louisiana, for example, two-thirds of the inmates in the state penitentiary in 1860 were white; just eight years later, two-thirds were black.

…Although they usually relied on the whip, countless enslavers also chained their human property in plantation dungeons below the main dwelling house or in a barn. Some locked enslaved persons in a hot box under the scorching southern sun. 

…After 1819, only the state of Louisiana habitually punished enslaved criminals with prolonged sentences in the penitentiary, usually for life. Virginia bondpeople typically spent only months to a year or two in the penitentiary before being purchased by a slave trader.

…The New Orleans Day Police confiscated the convict bondpeople and carried them to the Watch House at city hall for safekeeping. 

…Listed as “forfeited to the state,” their new master was the state of Louisiana. Some 200 enslaved people were held in the Louisiana State Penitentiary in the antebellum decades. 

…Prisoners at the penitentiary donned the convict’s uniform, which included an iron ring around the leg, linked by an iron chain to a belt around the waist. The penitentiary itself consisted of a three-story brick structure. Prison guards deposited inmates in cramped, individual cells, three and one-half feet wide and seven feet deep, secured by a iron door, poorly ventilated and unheated in the winter. Prisoners slept on mattresses placed on the floor and, at mealtime, ate mush and molasses from a tin plate in their cell, in the dark and alone. 

…Enslaved women may have willingly participated, in spite of vigilant officials, in loving relationships or clandestine affairs with fellow prisoners. At least as likely, female convicts proved captive, convenient and vulnerable targets for the unwanted advances of inmates, coercive white guards or other penitentiary authorities who wielded power over them. The prospect of rape was ever-present. At the same time, it is possible that the relatively few enslaved women in the Louisiana State Penitentiary were able to leverage their sexuality to extract various favors from those in charge or from inmates able to smuggle in goods from the outside. Given the range of possible encounters, Charlotte’s son and daughters may have been the products of consensual acts, forced sex, coercion or some combination thereof.

…A Louisiana law of 1848, unique among the slaveholding states, declared that children born to enslaved female prisoners confined in the penitentiary belonged to the state. An act of 1829 forbade the sale of enslaved children under the age of 10 away from their mothers, however, so the state was legally obligated to keep them together until the child’s 10th birthday. At that time, the state could seize the youngster as state property and auction him or her off to the highest bidder. The proceeds of such sales went to the free school fund, to finance the education of Louisiana’s white schoolchildren.

… By the outbreak of the Civil War, the seeds for the later mass incarceration of black people were already planted, the institutional structures already in place, and the precedents for black imprisonment already set. With the end of slavery, prisons were well positioned to transition from a secondary to a primary form of black oppression.

The History of Black Incarceration Is Longer Than You Think | Time

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