The Thirteenth Amendment is easily recognized as the amendment that ended slavery, right? Well, not entirely. Because there is an exception listed right in the language of the amendment. It states that “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, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” So with that exception came convict leasing. Right after slavery was outlawed, Black codes were created to restrict Black people’s freedom. They could be imprisoned for really vague charges such as mischief. And typically there were only white people on juries causing the outcome to be fairly predictable as to if Black people were convicted or not. Then they would be imprisoned and leased to plantation owners, going right back to a life of slavery.
One of the most insidious parts of racism is that it adapts. Jim Crow laws and segregation came on the scene after Black codes and continued to offer dishearteningly easy means to imprison Black people. Then once segregation became illegal, there was a rise in the “law and order” rhetoric being used by politicians who were pushing for a war on drugs that connected Black people to crack cocaine. The penalty for being caught with crack cocaine is 100x harsher than with powder cocaine which was used predominantly by white people. With this came laws such as ones from 1965 and 1981 that militarized police who then went into the communities that were seen as being more riddled with drugs despite research showing white and Black people use drugs at similar rates. So we can see these disparities lie in choices – there are always choices in who to police more heavily, how to charge different crimes, if we even bring charges, who we offer plea deals to, and more. The law and its actors are not free from implicit bias, as are none of us reading this either.
All of this has generational harm. It rips apart Black families when parents are incarcerated for long periods of time. When judges have discretion in sentencing, Black people are given sentences 20% longer than white people who are convicted of the exact same crimes. This leads directly to over incarceration, especially when prisons become privatized and can exploit the labor of those incarcerated. Which goes back to that convict leasing idea. Private companies and states are incentivized to increase incarceration rates, increasing free labor.
There are more Black people enslaved in American prisons today than there were slaves in America in 1800. The US has only 5% of the world’s population but 25% of the world’s prisoners. In 1972, 200,000 people were incarcerated in the US. In 1980 around 340,000 people were incarcerated. Today, there are over 2 million people incarcerated. 1 in 3 Black men born in America today will go to prison in their lifetime compared to 1 in 17 white men.
So we need to ask ourselves why. Why this disproportionate representation of our Black brothers in prison? There is nothing inherently different about these men made in the image of God. Therein lies our responsibility to stand up and speak out so this system can be changed.
Just Mercy, the film
13th, a documentary (available on Netflix)
When They See Us, miniseries (available on Netflix)
The Disrupters podcast, Season 1 Episode 3: “Dominique DuBois Gilliard’s Truth is Louder Than His Trauma”
We thank you, Lord, for your heart for justice. You are righteous, slow to anger and quick to give us grace. We acknowledge how we have contributed to racial injustice. We acknowledge bitterness that has taken root in us surrounding any aspect of racial injustice. We acknowledge failure to listen to the cries of our Black brothers and sisters. We acknowledge our failure to address racial and systemic injustice. We ask you, God, to intercede on our behalf in the Church’s heart towards racial justice. Please open all believers’ eyes and take away anything inhibiting them from hearing, seeing, and responding to the pain of their brothers and sisters in Christ. Lord, please comfort those who are incarcerated, facing incarceration, or in any way being held down by the legal system. We know that there are deep injustices playing out in the system right now and your provision is needed so each person has effective representation and can break free from the bondage of injustice. We ask you to tear down this system and rebuild it to reflect your justice and mercy. Allow us to open our eyes to how we can be part of this necessary change. Make us bold and faithful, wise and humble, armed with your Truth to take action. Amen.