The Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution 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.”
America has 5% of the world’s population but 25% of its prisoners.
Since the 1980s, seven times as many people are now behind bars.
For African American males without a high school diploma, around 80% will end up in jail or prison. Why aren’t the alternatives chosen more often: drug court, mental health treatment, house arrest, community service, restorative justice, close supervision by parole and probation, halfway houses, fines, restitution?
These facts alone should provoke thought. Filmmaker Ava DuVernay (“Selma”) explores these disturbing truths in her eye-opener documentary, “13TH” (2016, 100 minutes).
Nominated for Best Documentary Feature for an Oscar, it is a film that compels the viewer to dig deep and realize why there is a connection between mass incarceration and poverty, and in particular why the impact is so forceful on people of color.
Many of you know that I rode my bicycle from Albuquerque to Baltimore to raise awareness of the value of re-entry programs and how they reduce crime, benefit families and result in of course fewer crime victims. They also save the taxpayers so much money since programs cost around $20,000 a year on average and incarceration is more in the $80,000 range (and much higher for federal prisons and facilities for juveniles).
I’m still working on this issue, and one way is to encourage you to see this film. It’s on Netflix and from time to time is screened in local theaters around the country, often in the film festival context. Perhaps after the Oscars, it will find a larger audience.
“13TH” explores the link between slavery, the Thirteenth Amendment and today’s massive system of incarceration. DuVernay has succinctly pieced together historical events, archival news footage and imagery along with expert opinions establishing an unexpected link: the link between an amendment intended to guarantee freedom and the utter lack of free movement of those incarcerated.
I winced as I watched the deconstruction of D.W. Griffith’s 1915 film, “The Birth of a Nation.” Filled with disturbing and terrifying images of black men, the film predicted the rise of racism, injustice, the torture and death of people like Emmett Til and Medgar Evers and the lack of balance in the criminal justice system when race and poverty are factored in.
Post-civil war freedom came with a price: more incarceration for petty matters requiring involuntary servitude identical to slave conditions, restrictions on voting, the rise of the KKK just as the black middle class was gaining strength and the demonizing of African American males. The murder of 14-year-old Emmett Till, the early civil rights movement leading to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the later so-called wars on crime and drugs, including Clinton’s promotion of Three Strikes laws and mandatory sentencing, are all connected in this film to the end result: mass incarceration.
Think about this: why were penalties for possessing and dealing crack so much more severe than the same for cocaine until the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010?
When states and the federal government turn over to for-profit companies the detention and monitoring of inmates and former offenders, are there any “for profit” incentives for those businesses to ensure successful re-entries and reduce recidivism? This documentary explains what ALEC is and shows its influence on lawmakers that results in increased incarceration and corporate earnings rising at the same time.
Contemporary opinions are sought from many, including U.S. Representative Charles Rangel, New Gingrich, professor Henry Louis Gates, Americans for Tax Reform founder Grover Norquist, professor and political activist Angela Davis, civil rights advocate Michelle Alexander and writer (“The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness”) and others.
It is beyond chilling just hearing the words of George Zimmerman when he calls the police about teenager Trayvon Martin, heading home after buying candy: “He’s got his hand in his waistband….and he’s a black male.”
Ponder all of the meaning and the consequences of this mindset. Wonder why we still are not having open, honest discussions about race.
Here’s a link to the trailer. https://youtu.be/V66F3WU2CKk
Sources: Next America: Criminal Justice Project, IMDb, “13TH”