Breaking Out of the Prison Industrial Complex Most people say American slavery ended in the 1800s. But Douglas Blackmon argues that the practice endured into the 20th century through the nation's prisons. Blackmon's new book, Slavery by Another Name, details how prisons cashed in on the incarcerated.

Breaking Out of the Prison Industrial Complex

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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

Most people say American slavery ended in the 1800s, but Douglas Blackmon argues the practice endured into the 20th century through the nation's prisons. He's the Atlanta bureau chief of the Wall Street Journal, and his new book is "Slavery by Another Name." It details secret sales of inmate labor to various industries, and how prisons cashed in on the incarcerated. Douglas, welcome.

Mr. DOUGLAS BLACKMON (Author, "Slavery by Another Name"): Thanks for having me.

CHIDEYA: So in your book you write about prisoners who you say were sold into slavery in the 1920s. Talk a little bit about the mining industry.

Mr. BLACKMON: Well, mining was one of the industries which, in the South in the last years of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century, relied very extensively on the forced labor of thousands and thousands of men, nearly all of them black, and a great majority of whom had been arrested on what ultimately were specious charges or on the basis of laws passed by the Southern states specifically to re-impose a kind of coerced labor of freed slaves and their descendents.

CHIDEYA: What kind of money are we talking about in today's dollars for some of these transactions over prison labor?

Mr. BLACKMON: Well, in Alabama, for instance, which is the state where this particular form of the system took its largest form, by the beginning of the 20th century, the money that was being paid by U.S. Steel Corporation and a number of other major operators of coal mines to the state of Alabama amounted to tens of millions of dollars in modern-day currency, and was by far the single largest source of revenue to the state of Alabama.

CHIDEYA: When you look at how race played a role in this, was this really driven around black prisoners, or was it white prisoners as well?

Mr. BLACKMON: There were some white prisoners who were affected by this and caught up in this system, but this was overwhelmingly something about African-Americans. And it was also the lynchpin of a much larger system of racial intimidation that metastasized across the South right at the turn from the 19th to the 20th century.

And so what my book is about, "Slavery by Another Name," is not just the prison labor system and the roots of the prison - the private prison complex today, it's really a book about the whole spectrum of coerced labor that came to dominate the lives of really millions of African-Americans primarily. And the prison leasing system was the most terrifying hammer that was hanging over the lives of African-American men in the early 1900s. But sharecropping and tenant farming and many other forms of labor were effectively involuntary servitude, and African-Americans were compelled to go along with it for fear of being sucked into the more formal prison leasing system.

CHIDEYA: We just spoke with a representative from Corrections Corporation of America, which runs some private prisons. Do you think - you really talk about this in the context of the 19th and 20th centuries. Now in the 21st century, we don't have the same leasing agreements for prisoners, but do you think that in some ways, private prisons have evolved out of the situations you talk about?

Mr. BLACKMON: Well there's no doubt that the practice of inmates making license plates, you know, in prisons, the sort of classic pop culture image we have of that kind of work, that the images we have of "Cool Hand Luke" and of chain gangs and men being forced to work on railroads. All of that imagery of our culture is based on this kind of labor inside prisons. And there's no doubt that in one way or another, that led to some version of our society's comfort level, some parts of our society's comfort level, with the idea of privately operated prisons today. So there's no doubt there's some connection there. But it's not the same thing by any stretch.

CHIDEYA: Let me ask you about something specific. Sheriff Joe Arpaio in Arizona reinstituted chain gangs for men and women. What do you make of that?

Mr. BLACKMON: Well, it may well - and I don't know the details of it - but it certainly sounds to me like sort of a throwback thing to do. And if it's being done in any manner in the way that the chain gangs and the predecessors to chain gangs worked 100 years ago, then it would be a terrible thing, because the chain gangs of 100 years ago were more like German death camps than they were any form of the modern penal system.

At the same time, the key difference in all of this, the key factor to look for, is that what the book is about is that sheriffs in Alabama and Georgia and Mississippi and Florida were specifically compensated for the number of men they arrested and then sold into involuntary servitude. And so the economic incentives of the criminal justice system were explicit, that the more people you arrested, the less money you spent to feed them while they were in the county jail, those were the two ways the sheriff could become a wealthy man.

And those economic incentives don't exist in the same explicit way today, I don't think, that they did 100 years ago. And that was the root, along with just white supremacy and bigotry, those were the roots of the horrifying brutality and atrocity that pervaded the system a century ago.

CHIDEYA: All right. Douglas, thank you.

Mr. BLACKMON: Thank you.

CHIDEYA: Douglas Blackmon is the Atlanta bureau chief of the Wall Street Journal. His new book is "Slavery by Another Name."

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