Once upon a time, I believed that using inmates from Moriah Shock Incarceration Correctional Facility to build an ice palace for the town of Saranac Lake, NY, represented the most egregious example of the modern carceral state carrying on the work of American slavery.
Here’s the back story: A few years ago, CNBC ran a critique of America’s prison industry, which paid special attention to for-profit companies like CCA. In response, Mayor Pro Tem Bill Smith and City Manager Tom Weil, of California City, CA, sent a letter to CNBC defending the city’s contract with CCA to operate its hometown prison, which specializes in illegal immigrants. The letter presented the “positive benefits” that the city has received. (Are there such things as “negative benefits”?) The usual economic benefits are touted, but there are others that disclose why our current prison system–especially when conducted for profit–is pretty much a slaver’s game.
For example, according to the letter, when CCA first won the contract to run the prison in 1999, one benefit was that it “limited several social issues from occurring with California City. Families of the prisoners did not move close to those incarcerated due to their illegal community status.”
The destruction of families is one of the more insidious effects of incarceration, an issue which I’ve seen first hand, and one explored by, among others, Professor Teresa A. Miller, of the University of Buffalo. (See her remarkable Vimeo video, “Gant Family Visit Scene.” Unfortunately, the couple profiled in this video has since divorced.) And The Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi Coates writes about slavery’s destruction of the family in his March 26 article, “The Meaning of ‘Totalitarian’.”
But let it not be said that the officials of California City are unsympathetic to family integrity. Later in the letter, Smith and Weil write that, when the initial contract with CCA ended, and the prisoners were dispersed to other facilities,
CCA families were now being torn apart due to reassignments and the home market demise.
In another example from the letter that will ring a bell with anyone familiar with the history of Emancipation:
Finally, our citizenry knew when the prisoners completed their sentence that there was no fear of them released within the community. Instead, their status assured them a bus trip out of the country.
When the masters can no longer benefit from your servitude, it’s time to go! Liberia was the preferred location in the 19th Century, although Lincoln was also open to recolonizing freed slaves in Central and South America, which at least is close enough to Mexico for our current crop of undesirables to feel at home.
Here are the final two reasons that, according to the letter, the end of the CCA contract threatened disaster to California City, and called for immediate action. First:
The City searching for relief from this downward spiral elected to partner with CCA in order to save a once vibrant prison from becoming a vacant shell.
Think about that phrase for a second: “a once vibrant prison.” The Free Dictionary defines “vibrant” as “Pulsing or throbbing with energy or activity…Vigorous, lively and vital.” For anyone who has actually seen the inside of one of these places, a more ignorant and perverted collection of words is almost impossible to imagine.
But here’s where Bill Smith and Tom Weil truly entered new territory, and made me rethink my former opinion on the connection between incarceration and slavery. According to their letter, CCA had to be invited to stay because:
Effluent from the prison that once provided recycled water for the City’s golf course was starting to dry up.
“Effluent” can be read as “sewage.”
If the mayor and the city manager of California City are championing the use of inmates’ bodies so that they–and the employees of CCA–can increase their leisure time, they’re a lot closer to slave owners than I originally thought.