Imagine today if the largest maximum-security prison in Germany was built on top of a former German Nazi concentration camp. In this prison, 80% of the population were Jewish men, where most were serving life sentences. A sentence that would mean that they would die on the same site as the former camp. This is what poet, author, and educator Clint Smith asks us to envision in his latest book, How the Word is Passed, an incredible feat of truth-telling.
Of course, this scenario would be unfathomable and, as Smith describes it, “a global emblem of antisemitism.” Yet this is exactly what has occurred on American or rather Indigenous Choctaw soil. The only difference is that instead of Jews imprisoned in a former Nazi concentration camp, it is Black men imprisoned on a former Louisiana slave plantation.
The Louisiana State Pen., better known as “Angola Prison,” is the nation’s largest maximum-security prison and built on top of a former slave plantation. It is referred to as “Angola,” as this is the country where most of those enslaved were taken from. Between 1844 and 1898, convict leasing (a system of forced labor) was the standard, with Black inmates given the harshest tasks often of the formerly enslaved. While White prisoners, considered more intellectual, were given clerk and craftsmanship work.
The current prison labor system’s no better, just an update, with Black men working across the 18,000-acre land for virtually no pay (2 cents an hour, according to the state’s 2015 pay regulations). According to the Parole Project, around 80 percent of the 10/6 lifers and 73 percent of all inmates serving life sentences at Angola are Black, and some sentences are given when they were just children.
Smith spends a chapter of his book detailing his journey into the prison. He highlights how the infamous prison capitalizes on its inmates, offering tours to the public, including a trip to the Angola museum (funded by the Louisiana State Pen. Foundation) that bears no mention of slavery and its gift shop. A gift shop where you can purchase a coffee mug with the printed phrase “Angola, a gated community.”
I urge you to visit the prison’s website to see for yourself. They have t-shirts and bottle sleeves featuring the same phrase, and if that’s not to your taste, they also have shot glasses and handcuff keychains. It is profoundly disturbing that this is one of the most brutal prisons globally, earning the name “the bloodiest prison in the South;” a prison that had a traveling electric chair, a torturous history of solitary confinement and convict leasing, and yet someone had the idea to sell merchandise that makes a blatant mockery of the conditions these men have been subjected to. Apparently, no one thought it was a terrible idea.
The justification of the enslavement of African people relied heavily on the racist pseudoscience invented by European “scholars” and “scientists” in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, who claimed that enslaving African people was a “civilizing project.” They came up with theories “proving” that Negroes were naturally inferior and acted as if it was in everyone’s best interest for them to be enslaved.
Centuries may have passed since then, but it is apparent that these ideas of Black inferiority still hold purchase, not just in the psyches of White people, but in Black people too. Why else are we not outraged that a land stained with the blood of enslaved people forced to work for free is now the site of the largest maximum-security prison in the US? That forces a disproportionate number of Black men to work for next to nothing? Why are we indifferent to former plantations, where enslaved people were raped, brutalized, and killed, offering to be the sites of weddings and honeymoons?
In his book “Just Mercy,” Bryan Stevenson, an incredible lawyer, and founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, also considers the aversion people would have to a death row in Germany, especially one where Jewish people were systematically more likely to be sentenced to death. While over in the United States — where bodies of people who were lynched are buried in the ground – a Georgia study found that if you are Black, you are 22 times more likely to get death if the accused is Black and the victim white.
We are actively upholding the racist ideas that the lives of Black men, women and children mean so little when we allow them to be treated in a way that would be viewed as abhorrent if they were racialized as White.
A similar case can be made with the state of reparations. The victims of the Holocaust received reparations from Germany. The United States also paid reparations to Japanese Americans interned in concentration camps during the second world war. Yet descendants of the enslaved from the transatlantic slave trade period have received nothing; rather, those who did the enslaving received hefty indemnities.
Take Haiti, for example, which paid 100 million francs to France (using money borrowed from French and US banks). This amount was fives times France’s annual budget. It was paid to France as a condition for recognizing Haiti’s independence and as “compensation” for the loss of French’s “property,” that “property” being human beings. This bankrupted Haiti, put it in economic slavery for generations, and helped leave a legacy of poverty that we see today in the nation.
I would hope that the case of Angola would be a testament to the fact that nothing has changed. However, I think it is worth taking a moment here because I can already hear the cries of “slavery happened so long ago, let’s move on.”
When we talk about enslavement, we are talking about contemporary history that we are not that far removed from. The last known survivor of the last known slave ship was Matilda McCrear, who died in 1940 at age 82. Peter Mills is thought to be the last surviving person born into slavery, and he died in 1972. The transatlantic slave trade was truly a dark period of human history. Yet, it is comforting for some to pretend that those atrocities are far behind us, left to be pages in our history books (the un-whitewashed ones that they don’t use in schools).
This could not be further from the truth, as the past informs our present. Slavery is still legal in the United States under the 13th Amendment, neocolonialism and unfair trade practices are still crippling the underdeveloped world, the International Monetary Fund (IMF), World Bank, World Trade Organization (WTO) and their imperialist monetary policies ensure that former colonies will never gain economic independence, structural racism plagues our education and healthcare systems, I could go on. To make the argument that slavery should be relegated to history and we should move on and leave it in the past is to insult all those who were forced to endure 500 years of chattel slavery. It is also an insult to the living descendants in Africa and the diaspora who must try to survive in a world full of the aforementioned structural barriers.
When we talk about the horrors of the holocaust in Germany or the inhumane acts committed by the Nazis, we are, of course, in no way condemning every German person alive today for the acts of their ancestors. Likewise, when we confront our collective history concerning the abomination that was chattel slavery, it is not to evoke feelings of guilt or blame on the descendants of those whose ancestors aided and committed these atrocious acts. We are simply striving to tell the truth.
However, we need real change to create a better world than we inherited. The criminal justice system is one of many systems inseparably linked with racism and imperialist capitalistic violence. It will never be capable of serving everyone because it can barely recognize the humanity of some. Nor was this ever its purpose. It was designed to serve the state and maintain its power from its inception. In allowing its existence, we, too, reinforce the idea that some lives hold more value than others.