Hard Labor

"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."

There is no American economy without enslavement and incarceration at the foundation. In New Orleans, this is far from an abstraction. Foster's Slave Pen was right over there, not two yards from where I work in the 800 block of Common Street.

Architect Emile Weil designed the Canal Bank and Trust building in 1927. Its rusticated Romanesque walls rise from ground made profane by enslavement, yet sanctified by the unrecorded resistance which always everywhere accompanied it. The building has stood visibly unbothered by its site's history until about a month ago, when a plaque was installed.

The plaque is about six feet up, reddish-brown with bronze lettering: "When an ordinance banned prison-like "slave pens" from the city's core, traders moved just outside, to the present-day Central Business District. The slave trading structures on this site were operated by a number of traders, including Thomas Foster, who in 1858 ran one of the largest slave markets in the city."

It is the product of the New Orleans Slave Trade Marker Tour and Audio Guide, a project which arose out of the New Orleans Tricentennial Commission's work to tell our city's story as America's incarceration capital. Though there has been excellent academic and activist work on the sites of enslavement in the city for many years, from scholars including Rashauna Johnson, Walter Johnson, Freddi Williams Evans and Leon Waters, few explicit physical markers of the carceral landscape have found their way into the streets themselves until very recently. (One of the most substantial, St Augustine Catholic Church's Tomb of the Unknown Slave, looks as if it has lain on the church's Gov. Nicholls Street side for generations, but has actually only been there since 2004.)

When we mark our histories, we start to see how they tessellate into the present. The United States are home to 5% of the world's population, but 25% of its prisoners - 2.2 million people. Though Black people comprise 13% of the nation's population, they are 40% of the prisoners, and 1 in 10 Black men between the ages of 30 and 40 is incarcerated, many for nonviolent acts, like marijuana possession, for which White people are rarely policed or prosecuted. Privately-owned prisons contract out incarcerated people's labor, farming food and manufacturing products for brands like Victoria's Secret and Wendy's.

Those forced into what they themselves call 'prison slavery' have long resisted dehumanization and increasingly punitive incarceration practices, through tactics including economic boycotts and hunger strikes. Following a deadly riot precipitated by mistreatment at the Robert E. Lee Correctional Institution - named by the state of South Carolina in 1993, for the Confederate leader and enslaver who died in 1870 - incarcerated organizers in groups including Jailhouse Lawyers Speak began planning a national prison strike to communicate their dire situation between and beyond the walls which held them.

The Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee, a prisoner-led section of the Industrial Workers of the World formed to facilitate a previous nationwide prison strike in 2016, coordinated the Nationwide Prison Strike 2018 to coincide with the Attica Uprising, a seminal battle in the prisoners' rights movement which began on September 9th, 2018. The IWOC's ten demands are:

  1. Immediate improvements to the conditions of prisons and prison policies that recognize the humanity of imprisoned men and women.
  2. An immediate end to prison slavery. All persons imprisoned in any place of detention under United States jurisdiction must be paid the prevailing wage in their state or territory for their labor.
  3. The Prison Litigation Reform Act must be rescinded, allowing imprisoned humans a proper channel to address grievances and violations of their rights.
  4. The Truth in Sentencing Act and the Sentencing Reform Act must be rescinded so that imprisoned humans have a possibility of rehabilitation and parole. No human
    shall be sentenced to Death by Incarceration or serve any sentence without the possibility of parole.
  5. An immediate end to the racial overcharging, over-sentencing, and parole denials of Black and brown humans. Black humans shall no longer be denied parole because the victim of the crime was white, which is a particular problem in southern states.
  6. An immediate end to racist gang enhancement laws targeting Black and brown humans.
  7. No imprisoned human shall be denied access to rehabilitation programs at their place of detention because of their label as a violent offender.
  8. State prisons must be funded specifically to offer more rehabilitation services.
  9. Pell grants must be reinstated in all US states and territories.
  10. The voting rights of all confined citizens serving prison sentences, pretrial detainees, and so-called “ex-felons” must be counted. Representation is demanded. All voices count.

Thanks to the work of the Slave Trade Marker project, one can almost see the shackled men, women and children incarcerated at Foster's Slave Pen 160 years ago. And, through the lens of the IWOC's organizing work, one cannot ignore the suffering imposed at Robert E. Lee Correctional Institution - or Orleans Parish Prison, or Angola - today. The past is not past, as long as it is present.

Re:Presenting New Orleans

Re:Presenting New Orleans

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Making Space