One objection to categorizing prisoners as slaves might be that prisoners still do retain some rights. Even if those rights are often ignored, this seems to mean the prisoners haven’t become property of the state.
Yet the fact that there are regulations on what you are legally allowed to do with something doesn’t mean it isn’t legally seen as your property. In fact, there were some things that even slaveholders were not legally allowed to do to chattel slaves in the United States. Of course, those laws were almost never enforced, but even if they had been, this would not have amounted to freedom.
Unfortunately, the slave status of prisoners is also apparent from their depiction in popular culture. Flippant jokes about prison rape are pervasive. Especially brutal treatment is met with indifference or even applause. The average person simply does not see the prisoner as a fellow human being.
Within the United States, there are a number of unsettling historical connections between chattel slavery and the development of the prison system. As Angela Davis chronicles in her short but powerful Are Prisons Obsolete?, the criminal justice system ensured that racial exploitation survived the abolition of chattel slavery. The first step came from the black codes, which made a whole host of things (from firearm ownership to neglecting one’s job) illegal specifically for blacks. The second came from the system of convict leasing, which allowed the penal system to sell rights to forced labor from its (overwhelmingly black) prisoner population. Looking at prisons we see today, which still exploit artificially cheap convict labor; and are still predominantly filled by people of color and sometimes literally built on former slave plantations, it is not difficult to come away with similar conclusions.
Yet, while critiques of the American prison system that focus on its history are important, they should also not be overemphasized. That prisons are a form of slavery goes beyond their history, and not specific to the United States.
Consider the words of Nils Öberg, director-general of Sweden’s prison and probation service. While explaining their emphasis on rehabilitation, he stated that his department’s “role is not to punish. The punishment is the prison sentence: they have been deprived of their freedom. The punishment is that they are with us.”
Even when prisons are described in their most humane terms, there is a subtle admission that to send someone to prison is to make them a slave. Öberg assures us that his government has merely deprived inmates of their freedom, and that their possession of the convict is all the punishment they need.
Despite Öberg’s good intentions, it is not enough that a slaveholder is relatively kind to his slaves, or genuinely has the slave’s interests at heart. Slavery, in any form, is an absolute evil that requires abolition, not reform.
We are clearly a long way away from abolishing prisons, punishment, and criminal law, or instituting a purely tort-based system geared towards achieving restitution for victims. So, how should any of this influence the way we look at real world politics? To conclude this series, the next installment will give some possible answers to that question.