Black Women and the Prison Industrial Complex

I came of age in Elizabeth, New Jersey, a suburb of Newark, during the 1980s. I witnessed and experienced how crack cocaine infiltrated and devastated Black communities. I watched people I regarded as sisters and fictive kin become victims of the crack cocaine epidemic and the subsequent War On Drugs. The 1980s signified America’s War on Drugs and Tough on Crime Era. The surge in mass incarceration rates that followed continues to be a concern for Black communities that are criminalized and more heavily policed. Historian Carol Anderson reminds us in her book White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide that, despite the stereotypes, Black people are the least likely to use drugs or engage in the illegal drug trade than any other racial group in the United States. Yet, when confronted with irrefutable evidence of whites’ engagement with the illegal-drug trade, law enforcement (inclusive of the justice system) has continued to focus its efforts on criminalizing the Black population.

The Sentencing Project finds that between 1980 and 2017, the number of incarcerated women increased by more than 750%, rising from a total of 26,378 in 1980 to 225,060 in 2017. They have also identified that the imprisonment rate for Black women is nearly twice as high as it is for White women, 92 per 100,000 and 49 per 100,000, respectively. The surge in Black women and incarceration can be attributed to the change in sentencing policy that accompanied America’s War on Drugs. But I cannot ignore how incarceration rates may be more closely related to trickle down economic theories.

The profits earned by labor and production within the prison industrial complex are akin to the plantation business model that rendered legal the exploitation of Black labor over multiple generations.

The legal code that transformed commodified bodies into a chattel slave system begins with a Black woman named Elizabeth Key. Key was born to a pre-emancipated African mother and a European planter in the early 1600s in the Virginia colony. Like many other English and colonial subjects, Key sought to inherit the wealth and social status from her father, a wealthy planter.

After her father’s death, other Virginians argued that Key was the property of her father’s estate as a pre-emancipated person. Key, in response, sued for her freedom and won. Her father was a member of the Virginia House of Burgesses, and, despite Key’s personal connections to these democratic forefathers, they could not ignore her economic value in an unstable economy and “democracy.” They viewed Black women as a kind of “factory” for colonial America — a person that could work to produce goods and produce incalculable generations of free labor using her body.

Shortly after Key’s victory, the colony passed a new law. Her father’s friends made it legal to own flesh for lifetimes. In 1662, the Virginia House of Burgess passed a law establishing that the social status of children born in the colony ("bond" or "free") would follow the social status of their mothers — as opposed to the status of the father, such as Key had used in her lawsuit — thus securing an exploitable labor force for generations, until emancipation and the Thirteenth Amendment. The result of Key’s case was a legislative decision that codified the custom of “chattel slavery” to the history of the Americas, a free labor system that was sustained through reproduction, from generation to generation, as a social and economic construct. In American History courses, we teach that chattel slavery was abolished in 1865 with the Thirteenth Amendment.

What I am concerned about is how the Thirteenth Amendment also extends slavery and involuntary servitude into the prison population. The statute reads, “Section 1. Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as punishment for a crime for which the person has been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States or any place subject to its jurisdiction.” Historian Talitha L. Le Flouria’s Chained in Silence: Black Women and Convict Labor in the New South underscores this point, exploring the intersection of Black women’s incarceration and labor in Georgia.

Three hundred and fifty years after Elizabeth Key’s freedom suit, Black women are still entangled in the American court system that seeks to criminalize them and by extension exploit their labors.

In 2012, the United States spent $81 billion on corrections. I like to imagine how much education, health care, and urban infrastructure can be remedied with this type of budget. PBS found that in 2014, private correctional facilities were a $4.8 billion dollars industry with profits estimated at $629 million that year.

These profits are generated from the labor of incarcerated people as they produce goods that provide private prison investors with huge gains and the American public with daily conveniences. For example, inmates are trained and then used to fight wildfires in California. According the CNBC, inmates are paid $1 an hour, saving the state $100 million per year. There are approximately 2.2 million people currently caught up in the prison industrial complex of the United States. Presently, prison labor subsidizes the modes of production for many corporations, including major furniture and clothing retailers. Incarceration impacts Black women in a myriad of ways. In addition to the exploitation of labor practices, incarcerated Black women are subject to inadequate physical and mental health services. As women are the primary caregivers for children, the rise in incarceration rates among Black women contributes to the statistic that 2.7 million children in the United States have at least one incarcerated parent. As a former public-school teacher in Baltimore, I know how the stress of having an incarcerated parent can impact the learning environment — from cognitive delays, disciplinary problems, and the need for additional services to generate a healthy educational environment. It is also important to consider that millennials and members of Generation Z born in the 1990s have felt the impact of mass incarceration more than previous generations. One out of three of them have a loved one that is incarcerated before they reach the age of 18. This is a result of the harsher sentencing and policies related to the War on Drugs. The same study finds that if the rates of incarceration continue one out of every 18 Black women will be imprisoned in her lifetime. With the case Elizabeth Key in mind, I am advocating that congress takes a greater role in criminal justice reform.

I see a solution beginning with Congress enacting the powers granted to them in Section 2 of the Thirteenth Amendment and use their power to enforce this “article” by appropriate legislation. I view appropriate legislation as building legal codes and statutes to counter mass incarceration and the business of the prison industrial complex. Congress must identify and rectify the biases that are deeply embedded in our criminal justice system.


About the Author

DaMaris B. Hill is the author of A Bound Woman Is a Dangerous Thing, The Fluid Boundaries of Suffrage and Jim Crow: Staking Claims in the American Heartland, and \Vi-zə-bəl\ \Teks-chərs\(Visible Textures). Similar to her creative process, Hill’s scholarly research is interdisciplinary. Hill is an Associate Professor of Creative Writing and African American Studies at the University of Kentucky. Follow her on Twitter @damarishill.