Mass Incarceration…the New Slavery in America

Leonard Lovett, Ph. D

For decades I have howled about our criminal justice system that is truncated, horrific, fraught with incivility and broken. Human beings are warehoused like animals not just for months, often for decades. It is reminiscent of human cargo in the baracoon of slave vessels on their horrific journey during the Trans-Atlantic diaspora from the shores of Africa. Mass incarceration is indeed the new slavery.  It is equally as bad as the Soviet Union’s gulag an institution that punished ideas, while we are geared to punish conditions.

The prison industrial complex now has a slot on Wall Street built around capital gains. Inmates work for low wages which constitutes another form of economic exploitation.  Inmates must hire legal counsel for parole hearings and anything regarding their welfare. The suicide rate for inmates has increased exponentially due to futility and the loss of personhood.

Over four decades ago I spent one year as a Research fellow at Bryn Mawr Graduate School of Social Research in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania with a focus on social theory and community organization. The widow of the late Dr. Ira Reid, sociologist and friend of Dr. WEB Dubois invited me via a mutual friend to come and take whatever I wanted from his library. Dr. Reid had participated in early research on lynching in America. My interest in the criminal justice system in this nation has never waned.

I held a pastorate in Haverford, Pennsylvania (Memorial Church of God in Christ-(the Gathering) while simultaneously working as a Coordinator for the Health and Welfare Council Neighborhood Youth Corps. My field experience with gang members began. Our task was to find troubled youth, link them with a job to institutions in the Philadelphia metropolitan area and motivate them to finish High School. Under the auspices of the Labor Department the program proved successful. Multiple stories evolved from this experiment as I moved from theorist to practitioner with live hardened gang members. They would announce their leave time for 2:30 as (two dongs and a split).  Only God enabled me to make the adjustment. A few did not make it and returned to the street. Many more succeeded and finished school.

Philadelphia Police Commissioner Frank Rizzo ruled the streets as he walked with a billy club tucked inside his business suit. Race was used as a basis to abuse citizens. A 1996 federal consent decree was mandated as a result of corruption scandal where six officers pleaded guilty to  Civil Rights violations, obstruction of justice, robbery, filing false reports and other gross violations. A decade earlier police dropped a fire bomb on a residence killing eleven people who were part of a Black radical group, (MOVE), leaving 256 residents homeless under Black Mayor Wilson Good. Young people are waiting to be affirmed by a community that they trust will care deeply. The Gospel is social as well as individual.

It was during the seventies and eighties that the war on drugs was initiated via president Ronald Reagan and escalated into what has been avidly described by Michelle Alexander as the new normal by mass incarceration in the age of colorblindness in her best seller…The New Jim Crow. The current Trump administration with Attorney General Jim Session has begun to reinforce policies that promote mass incarceration especially for lesser educated Brown and Black people of color. Mass incarceration has now become the new normal.

Alexander constructs a formula for the New Slavery-incarceration. Stage 1- The Roundup- the Drug War is the vehicles where extraordinary numbers of Black males are swept into the system through unwarranted police raids on poor communities and are rewarded by monetary incentives to increase the numbers.

Stage 2- Formal Control- Easy convictions are achieved by pressuring persons arrested to plead guilty with promise of lesser charges. Once trapped the plea bargain chess-match begins. Drug offenders spend more time under formal control of the criminal justice system in this nation than drug offenders anywhere in the world. Stage 3-Final. The Period of Invisible Punishment. Once a released prison inmate is labeled a felon they are marked for life and will always be treated as a sub-class. It impacts everything they touch from employment to basic societal benefits. Unable to overcome these obstacles many individuals return to a life of crime.

The Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution abolished slavery with one exception that slavery remained appropriate as punishment for crime. 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, or any place subject to their jurisdiction}. The convicted person embarks on a life of penal servitude to the state. All state prisons operate as independent entities and create their own system of rules.

Conclusion: Over three decades ago I sat in a court room in an adjacent upscale county in Southern California.  It was a case where a sexual predator was killed in self-defense. The all-white jury listened for several days and imposed a severe sentence on the victim, who was Black African-American. I was livid. It reinforced what was in my heart that justice for privileged whites means “just us.”

I followed the case and ministered to this family and watched several decades of this young man’s life eviscerated by a harsh criminal justice system that is poised against the victim solely on the basis of color. I want to protect the privacy of the young man who spent three decades in a vicious system predicated on the core principles of slavery. I call upon Pastors to talk with your youth and steer them away from a life wasted in a slave prison. In the tradition of our Lord we are bound to struggle against all forms of oppression…including a broken criminal justice system that clearly is biased on the basis of color. Together let’s set the captives free based on the mandate of our Lord in Luke 4: 18.

Follow me on The Agora @  “where truth is spoken and never compromised.”  Chief Editor, Leonard Lovett, Ph. D

Posted under: Public Forum


  • Edward Roderick McKnight on January 28, 2019 at 4:13 pm said:

    Dr. Lovett, I was touched by this article. As Your former student from Oral Roberts University, I have learned that as a man of color my responsibility is to make a difference. God has blessed me to not only be a Pastor, but the Sr. Chaplain at Lee Correctional Institute. The Knowledge that I received from you as my Mentor and Teacher has been applied. I continue to share Hope. I asked an Offender Today, What do You think, Offenders need? The Offender stated that we need People to offer us Hope. Hope is good. I believe that Educating, Mentoring and getting involved with our Youth is Better. As a Black people, if we don’t do anything and sit idly by; nothing will be accomplished. Dr. Lovett, thank you for speaking the Truth. May God continue to Bless You and Keep You. Edward McKnight.

  • Unique McKibbens on February 23, 2018 at 2:32 pm said:

    John Ehrlichman White House Domestic Affairs Advisor from 1969-1973 famously admitted “We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or blacks, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.” I believe we have not broken that cycle since.

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