The origins of modern mass incarceration, and its targeting of black offenders, are often traced back to the 1980s and the emergence of the war on drugs, but the roots go far deeper, according to a new book on American slavery.
In Williams’ Gang: A Notorious Slave Trader And His Cargo Of Black Convicts, Jeff Forret, a historian and a Distinguished Faculty Research Fellow at Lamar University, traces the ordeals of 27 enslaved black criminals at the hands of a Washington, D.C. slave trader whose questionable actions led to them serving a dozen years each in the Louisiana State Penitentiary. The book follows his earlier work, Slave against Slave: Plantation Violence in the Old South (LSU Press, 2015), which won the 18th annual Frederick Douglass Book Prize.
In a conversation with TCR, Forret recounts how the economic needs of depressed regions in the old Confederacy fueled the transformation of freed slaves into cheap indentured labor, how for-profit prisons in the 20th century earned billions by continuing the practice, and how modern American policing has been distorted by the “slave patrols” that once restricted the movements of African Americans.
This is an edited and slightly condensed version of the conversation.
The Crime Report: What motivated you to write this book?
Jeff Forret: I didn’t start out with any kind of agenda. I just wanted to tell a story. I was doing research on a previous book, Slave Against Slave: Plantation Violence In The Old South, that looked at conflict within the slave community and in slave quarters. I went to Baton Rouge because I wanted to see if there were any lists of enslaved people (incarcerated) in the Louisiana State Penitentiary for committing crimes against other enslaved people. Louisiana was almost unique in terms of southern states during the slavery era in incarcerating enslaved people for crimes. I found a list of ten names [under the heading] “Williams’ Negroes.” I did similar research in Virginia, and at the tail end of one of these rolls of microfilm, there was a list of names of enslaved people sold out of the Virginia State Penitentiary in 1840. They were the same names I had seen listed as the Williams’ slaves in the Louisiana records.
The book began as just me trying to figure out what was going on here. After the Civil War, there was a pretty big turnaround in terms of incarceration. For example, in Louisiana, in 1860, two-thirds of all the Louisiana State Penitentiary prisoners were white. Eight years later, two-thirds of their inmates were black. that flip only took eight years and it was replicated in other states.
We know about the rise of mass incarceration, which really took off in the 1980s with the war on drugs, as well as the emergence of for-profit prisons. But my research shows that the history of black incarceration goes further back in time still. I found enslaved people variously locked up in city or local jails, in private slave pens, in state penitentiaries; and those are only the ones that entered the formal legal system. Most didn’t. There were also private plantation prisons, the dungeons under the plantation house, and the “hot boxes” they used.
TCR: How did American slavery transition to the prison industrial complex of today?
JF: Basically, with the Civil War over and slavery abolished, people realized that the criminal justice system could be used for racial and social control. They could fill up these jails with allegedly troublesome black people. It didn’t take long, however, before the number of black prisoners outgrew the number of incarceration facilities. At that point, you start to see the rise of various convict leasing systems, where prisoners are rented out to private companies or individuals. Again, you’re still making a profit for people who are criminalizing black behavior. Those convict lease systems eventually are reformed or fall by the wayside as we enter the first few decades of the 20th century, but the same kinds of things continue. The next really big innovation comes with the war on drugs in the 1980s. This is also when we see the emergence of private for-profit prison systems. Today, there are basically two major for-profit prison companies that are each worth pretty close to $2 billion apiece. All in all, it’s a $5 billion industry. These are people making a lot of money through a process that is much the same as the one a slave trader or a slave owner used before the Civil War.
TCR: How has the history of black enslavement contributed to our society’s understanding of African-Americans’ struggle with our criminal justice system?
JF: When slavery was abolished, the world of southern whites was completely turned upside down. The criminalization of black behavior was a way to make sure that subjugation in various ways continued. It became a self-fulfilling cycle, where people are going to assume that black people are criminals and then that is going to further lead to continued incarceration. And the cycle is just going to repeat itself over time. I think that the residue of slavery was never really shaken off. It’s manifested in the criminal justice system in some pretty horrific ways that are still very much present.
TCR: How is the legacy of profiting from enslavement in the past utilized by private for-profit prisons today?
JF: These facilities are typically erected in rural places that are often economically depressed. They build facilities that have “x” number of beds in them and, for that facility to reach maximum profitability, those beds all need to be full. There is a whole process where prisoners are shipped around from one facility to the next. If there are too many prisoners in one area, they are sent to another area. They’re trafficking in inmates to fulfill the needs these facilities have. And they have various kinds of work programs for inmates, where they pay them pennies to produce something they can turn around and sell. That’s how they make billions in profits. You have a confined and restricted population, which is disproportionately black and other people of color, that is moved around to where their labor is in demand to make money for someone else. These are all features of the slave trade.
TCR: Are the slave catchers of the past connected to today’s police forces?
JF: I open with slave patrols in the first chapter. These slave patrols were among the earliest police forces in the old south. Their task was to monitor black behavior. Enslaved people were not supposed to be wandering off the plantation at night, going out and having fun, visiting friends and neighbors on neighboring plantations. The owners wanted them back in the slave cabins getting rest so they’d be ready to go the next day. And the owners would rather not do the work of a slave patrol themselves, so they hire some less well-off white people to do it for them. Slave patrolling is one of the origins of policing in the old south.
TCR: How do the slave trade and the history of enslavement connect to the often combative and prosecutorial relationship between police and African Americans today?
JF: Under slavery, black people did not enjoy freedom of movement. Masters and overseers kept them at work, under at the very least the threat of the whip, and barring the occasional errand off the plantation, slave-hire situation, or cross-plantation marriage, enslaved people did not have much opportunity to leave a highly circumscribed area. Slave patrols kept watch over the roads at night to make sure the enslaved were not wandering off to places where owners did not want them. This reality established certain expected patterns in white minds concerning what behavior was appropriate for black people and what geographic spaces were available to them.
In our own time, too, how often do we hear in the media of black people—black men in particular—who are arrested simply for being somewhere that white people didn’t want them, or somewhere they made white people uncomfortable, even in public parks or stores or by walking down the street? Racial profiling by police officers falls into the same category. With all of the technology available to us today, it’s pretty plain how often routine traffic stops escalate quickly and tragically. This is not terribly different from southern slave patrols harassing the enslaved in the nighttime hours. Several scholars have pointed out the roots of modern-day police forces in the South during the era of slavery. We are talking about racialized forms of social control, under different guises. And what links them is capitalism. Slave owners wanted their human property toiling away for them, producing for the market. And today, too, black and brown people are disproportionately convicted for crimes, imprisoned, and put to work for the profit of others.
TCR: In dealing with the topic of black incarceration and slavery, your narrative references the fact that large numbers of African Americans were sold and transported throughout the south constantly. The constant description of the slave trade in the context of numbers leads to a certain amount of desensitization, resulting in the reader at times forgetting that you’re talking about people rather than an expendable product.
JF: The term that historians of slavery use is commodification: enslaved people are transformed into commodities, into things that are bought and sold. I think the real parallel between the domestic slave trade and the present day is that you are looking at captive black people, who are denied their freedom, to make money for white people.
TCR: What role does the history of slavery in general play in gaining a better understanding of today’s criminal justice system?
JF: My book points out the long-standing criminalization of certain black behavior. The 27 enslaved people who were the members of “Williams’ gang” are subject to the punishment that they get on the basis of a lot of flimsy, circumstantial evidence and wrongful convictions. Every one of these 27 had been originally condemned to death (for theft), before the governor gave them a reprieve. That was how Virginia law worked at the time. Today [we see] black people getting harsher sentences than white people for the same kinds of crimes. The theme is quite consistent: systemic inequality has been built into the criminal justice system since the colonial period, and was certainly present in the time period of the 1830s-1850s that my book covers.
The 13th amendment still allowed for slavery as a punishment for a crime. That’s how they get away with some of the things they are doing today. But, again, just because it’s in the Constitution, it doesn’t mean that it’s fair, or right, or just. It is just [part of] a long tradition of black oppression at the hands of the American criminal justice system.
Isidoro Rodriguez is a staff contributor for The Crime Report. He welcomes comments from readers.