One of the key elements of the New Jim Crow is the relationship between punitive measures and the exploitation of labor. Prisoners are not only locked away for violating laws, but very often they are used as laborers for the benefit of private companies. Michelle Alexander is clear on making the connection between the New Jim Crow and the vagrancy laws, in which someone who was charged for vagrancy (which was essentially the crime of not being employed) could be hired out to plantation owners and private companies. Today privately owned prisons are a multi-million dollar industry; an industry built on the labor of prisoners who earn pennies, if anything at all.
Michelle Alexander connects the present day system of exploiting the labor of convicts with that of the vagrancy laws that were put in place after the abolition of slavery, but the roots of this system of exploiting the labor of convicts goes further back than that. One of the neglected aspects of the history of the Americas is that before the mass importation of enslaved Africans, the slave plantations were worked by indentured laborers from Europe. Take for instance the island of Barbados. So many white servants were sent there that in Capitalism and Slavery, the Trinidadian historian Eric Williams noted that to “barbadoes” someone became a popular phrase in the English language.
A large number of these laborers were prisoners and convicts. England began sending vagrants, thieves, criminals, prostitutes, and other undesired people in the society to their colonies in the Americas to work as laborers. Here we see the development of a system in which criminals were punished by having their labor being exploited in a distant land. Few in Europe would have protested such policies for two reasons. First of all, this policy essentially removed criminals from England. Some in the colonies, such as Benjamin Franklin, opposed what they called the “dumping” on the New World of the vagrants from Europe, but certainly many in England would not have challenged a policy that was aimed at removing criminals.
Secondly, England at the time had about 300 capital offences. One could be executed for a crime such as pick pocketing. When given the opportunity to choose between being executed and being transported to the Caribbean, many of the convicts chose the latter. Eric Williams points out that in 1667 a petition was sent praying for a wife who was convicted of stealing some goods to be transported rather than killed. By 1745, transportation was the penalty for something as relatively minor as stealing a silver spoon. Even being involved in trade union activity became an offense that was punished by transportation.
Although white laborers were not treated as badly as African laborers were treated, life on the plantations was certainly difficult for these white laborers. They were whipped, poorly fed, and treated inhumanly. It was not uncommon for white laborers to die shortly after arriving in the colonies due to how poorly they were treated. In a separate book by Eric Williams, titled From Columbus to Castro: The History of the Caribbean, he describes Barbados as “a word of terror to the white servant…”
This takes us to the modern day system of the New Jim Crow, which has created a multi-million dollar industry based on exploiting the labor of prisoners. The focus of this punitive system is not so much alleviating the social conditions that lead to both violent crimes and drug crimes, or even rehabilitating offenders, but rather utilizing the prison population for cheap labor. Such a system is not only a continuation of the vagrancy laws in the United States, but also the continuation of England’s policy of transporting convicts to slave plantations.
-Dwayne Wong (Omowale) is a graduate of FIU and the author of a number of books on African and African Diaspora history, including “Malcolm X, Bob Marley, and Other Essays,” “The Life, Goals, and Achievements of Marcus Garvey,” and “Kingdoms and Civilizations of Africa.”