Here is something that should blow the mind of any decent American:
There are slave plantations still in operation today in parts of the South.
Don’t believe me? Let me introduce you to the place formally known as Louisiana State Penitentiary, but much more commonly referred to by the plantation’s original name: Angola.
Slave-Trader and plantation ownerpurchased the land for the Angola Plantation in the 1830s. The name was chosen for the location in Africa from which the enslaved workers had been taken, and the plantation became an extremely profitable source for the cotton trade.
After the Civil War, the plantation was bought by Confederate Major Samuel Lawrence James.
Major James saw an opportunity for the plantation’s profits to continue, despite the setback caused by abolition. The 13th Amendment, which largely ended the practice of slavery, had one notable loophole. The Amendment reads:
Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.
In other words, people could still be subjected to involuntary servitude so long as they had been convicted of a crime. James saw that he could continue to operate the plantation under thesystem, which allowed plantation owners and private companies to “lease” unpaid involuntary workers from the state, effectively replacing chattel slavery with penal servitude. Not only did the plantation continue to operate, but he used his involuntary labor force to build levees and railroads across the state.
At the same time, the State of Louisiana passed a series of laws directly aimed at keeping a sizable involuntary workforce. Numerous minor infractions were given sizable fines, and if the accused parties were unable to pay (keep in mind that recently-freed slaves had very little money), the only other option was to work off their debt on a plantation like Angola.
In 1901, the Angola Plantation was formally incorporated into the Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections and opened as a state prison farm. It kept the name of the slave plantation in practice, and is still referred to as “Angola” to this day:
The name of the penitentiary is well known to many fans of blues music, as the place where Allen Lomax traveled to document the guitar of several inmates, most notably one Huddie Ledbetter, better known as Lead Belly (pictured in the foreground below):
Despite its importance to the history of Blues Music, the fact remains the Angola continued to operate almost exactly as it had before emancipation throughout the 20th Century, and continues to this day. The passage of various prison reforms has made some difference in the treatment of inmates, but those reforms have largely been driven by the reports of the horrific conditions in what has been repeatedly declared “The Worst Prison in America.”
One such report came after an act of protest by the prisoners in 1952, almost a full century after the abolition of slavery. In an act of defiance against the horrific work conditions, 31 prisoners cut their own Achilles’ tendons in order to cripple themselves, and the article published in Collier’s Magazine created a shocked outcry for reform.
Despite the slow reforms, merely looking at pictures of Angola over the course of its history are enough to show that some elements of the Slavery that the Civil War was fought to end are still alive and well in America today:
To put this problem in context, here is a Louisiana sheriff speaking in October of 2017:
In 38 seconds Steve Prattor, Sheriff of Caddo Parish in Louisiana, tells you why he REALLY likes keeping “good” Black men in jail. pic.twitter.com/7YtxixE1rU
— Shaun King (@ShaunKing) October 12, 2017
Thank you for reading. Hopefully, if more Americans can be made aware of the horrific legacy of our greatest national shame in our current penal system, our country can push for the criminal justice reform it so desperately needs. This is not a partisan issue, it is a human issue and every decent American, liberal or conservative, should be opposed to this victimization of our fellow citizens.