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The U.S. Prison System is Built on Racism

When I watched the documentary,“13TH directed by Ava Duvernay, I was struck by all the facts and stories about injustice, racism, and inequality in the United States prison system. The film starts out with Barack Obama telling the viewer that the United States holds 5% of the world’s population, but 25% of the world’s prisoners. Think about that.

The reason why the film is titled “13THis to hone in on a loophole in the 13th Amendment in the United States Constitution that has led to the broken prison system we have today. The 13th Amendment is widely known to have abolished slavery, with one exception.

“Section 1. 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, nor any place subject to their jurisdiction.”

This loophole has given to a prison boom and mass incarceration of African Americans in the United States. Prison is the only form of legal slavery in the United States. This led to a criminalization of black communities for decades. In 1970 the U.S. prison population was just above 327,000; today it is above 2 million.

These facts are disturbing and heart wrenching. It is ironic how, in a country that is supposedly the “land of the free,” 1/4th of the world’s prisoners are shackled and locked up. 40.2% of those prisoners in the U.S. are black men, even though they account for just 6.5% of the U.S. population in general.

The question is, how did this problem come about? After the abolishment of slavery in 1865 with the 13th amendment was ratified and 4 million humans who were formerly property were now free. This left a significant void in the U.S. economy, especially in the South. It left officials struggling with how to rebuild the economy after the civil war and put freed black people back to work in the most “efficient,” yet “legal” way possible. Following Civil War, African Americans were then arrested and imprisoned in mass amounts for extremely minor crimes, like loitering or vagrancy. Those prisoners we’re then put to work and tasked with providing labor to rebuild the economy in the South. Recently freed African Americans were made slaves again. The 13th Amendment said, except for criminals, everyone is free. Now that these “freed” African Americans were criminalized, they were no longer free.

The U.S. Prison System kept building on a policy of racism when President Richard Nixon coined the term “war on drugs” in the 1960s and started a cycle of criminalizing African Americans with drug addictions, rather than increasing resources for treatment and rehabilitation.

Black people have been depicted as criminals for centuries. The 1915 film, “Birth of a Nation” depicts this world on the African American community as violent, animalistic, and out of control. The sitting president as the time, Woodrow Wilson, even held a private screening of the film at the White House. The film was widely heralded for rebirthing the Klu Klux Klan.

This representation of the African American community as “criminal,” led the public to believe that prominent black activists of the civil rights movement were the biggest threat to society. Fred Hampton, the leader of the Black Panther Movement in Chicago was killed by police at 21 and Assata Shakur, the leader of the Black Liberation Army, was criminalized and thrown into prison.

White fear of black leadership and intellect made Black Americans continue to fear the police. Today that fear rightfully continues. With the murders of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Alton Sterling, Sandra Bland, and Tamir Rice, black people continue to be racially profiled and depicted as criminals.

Angela Davis, who was almost barred from teaching at any university in California by the governor, once said “The prison industrial complex relies historically on the inheritances of slavery.”

That is the prison system. It has been built from systemic racism since the 13th amendment loophole was created. It was set up to criminalize black people, enslave them, oppress them, and kill them. Now, we have more African Americans under criminal supervision than all the slaves back in the 1850s.

*13TH is streaming on Netflix now*


Hello! My name is Caroline Kinney, and I am the Campus Correspondent of the Muhlenberg Her Campus Chapter! I am originally from Leesburg, Virginia (D.C./Maryland/Virginia area) and currently a sophomore majoring in Theatre with a minor in Creative Writing. I am elated to be entering into this position at Her Campus Muhlenberg. My primary goals as the President/Editor-In-Chief of the chapter is to have an intersectionality approach to all of our content and to create a special bond between every team member in the chapter. Lover of corgis, guacamole, and intersectional feminism. I am so excited for this semester!
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