America’s prisons are slave labor factories

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Robin Bernstein new book "Freeman's Challenge: The Murder That Shook America's Original Prison for Profit" and photo of Auburn NY State Prison Reformatory 1908 Photo credit: UpNorth Memories/Don Harrison CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

While the 13th Amendment is often revered for putting an end to American slavery, what many don’t realize is how it represented the middle of America’s continuous relationship with slavery. It codified Black prisoners as a subhuman criminal class and made slavery in the form of prison labor an acceptable practice, uniting incarceration and capitalism.

Robin Bernstein, Dillon Professor of American History at Harvard University, joins host Robert Scheer on this episode of Scheer Intelligence to discuss the sinister origins of modern American slavery, as detailed in her new book, “Freeman's Challenge: The Murder That Shook America's Original Prison for Profit.”

“Prison labor, unpaid prison labor, forced prison labor, absolutely is slavery by another name,” Bernstein tells Scheer. The book shines a light on William Freeman’s story at Auburn State Prison in upstate New York. Freeman, indicted without evidence for horse theft, spent years imprisoned and forced to work in Auburn, a facility that ultimately became the prototype for the modern day American prison system.

“I want to show how the practices that were innovated in Auburn spread not only across the North, not only across the East, not only across the South, but also to California and the whole world,” Bernstein said. She aims to challenge the widely accepted, supposedly enlightened and progressive idea that prisons serve as a positive economic force.

Bernstein hopes her book will reveal that the end of slavery and all its negative associations with southern U.S. states should equally implicate the northern states, given their role in developing this new system.

“[T]he reason I think it's so important to expose the North's invention and expose the North's innovation in these practices is that when we start the story with the 13th Amendment, when we start the story of forced prison labor with the end of the Civil War, what we're doing is we're starting the story in the middle, and when we start the story in the middle, we inadvertently let the North off the hook.”



Joshua Scheer