Posted By The Editors | July 27th, 2010 | Category: Main Story By Stacey Patton
Since Louisiana has the highest rate of incarceration of any state in the country – of which 79 percent of its 39,000 inmates are black – it ’s no surprise to hear that BP is using prison labor to clean up the largest oil spill ever in U.S. history.
A recent report by The Nation reveals that in the days after the Deepwater Horizon wellhead explosion, cleanup workers could be seen on Louisiana beaches wearing scarlet pants and white t-shirts with the words “Inmate Labor” printed in large red letters. Costal area residents were rightly outraged given that they had seen their livelihoods disappear and are now desperate for work.
When angry residents rallied against BP’s use of cheap or free prison labor while so many hurting people need the work, the prison outfits disappeared overnight. But the predominantly black prisoner gangs remained, stoking real and imagined threats of violence reported by local white residents.
The NAACP’s President Benjamin Todd Jealous leveled accusations of racism against BP, saying in a letter to now former CEO Tony Hayward – “Workers of color tend to be assigned the most physically difficult, lowest paying jobs, with the most significant exposure to toxins, while white workers tend to be in supervisory, less strenuous positions. Contractors of color are not receiving equal consideration for opportunities to participate in mitigation efforts.”
BP has yet to comment on the accusations and The Nation report explains that transparency issues prevent a fuller picture on the use of prison labor in the Gulf cleanup. BP and Louisiana prison officials continue to stonewall.
BP’s use of prison labor shares troubling similarities to late 19th and 20th century “convict-leasing,” better known as chain gangs. The convict-leasing system that emerged in the South after the Civil War and the emancipation of 4 million blacks is hardly a relic of the past. You know those familiar scenes from the movies (depending on your age and where you grew up you may have seen them first hand) where throngs of men, mostly black, legs shackled in chains while toiling with large axes under the sweltering sun and the watchful eyes of armed guards and dogs.
Convict-leasing was a major component of the New South’s dehumanization of blacks and it emerged when southern state governments suddenly found themselves responsible for millions of blacks who had previously been freed from state control and the supervisions of former slave owners. Historians have described convict-leasing as a direct means for turning the freedmen into a new kind of slave and the system itself was deeply associated with the flowering of segregation and the reconstruction of the political economy of the South.
Black Codes or Jim Crow laws helped create the post-emancipation prison industrial complex in the South that was driven by profitability, racism and corruption. Black men, women and children were habitually arrested for violating Black Codes, failure to pay fines or on trumped up charges so they could be secured as labor convicts. Charged for trivial offenses, blacks were often handed heavy sentences served out in mines, railroads and farms where they endured brutal beatings, harsh working conditions and high mortality.
As the South created a new generation of slaves, the leasing system had widespread social consequences on black families and communities. The effect was also felt by free workers, just as the residents of Louisiana feel the terrible unfairness today. One can understand state officials’ almost panic to an extraordinary crisis. But the use of prisoners is inexcusable.
What we see today is nothing new – it’s a modern-day version of state-supported slavery. Government officials and corporations like BP willingly and knowingly trade prisoner’s lives for profit and revenue. As private companies have realized that prisoners are a source of profit, this profit motive has driven the increase in the prison population over the last century and a disproportionate number of the incarcerated continue to be black men.
Now the evidence is more visible than ever – on the oil threatened beaches of Louisiana.
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