13th: Documentary Analysis

Analysis of Themes

The documentary 13th is a gripping account of how the law that abolished slavery created an exploitable loophole for this inhumane behavior to continue, albeit subtly, under the guise of legality. The 13th Amendment of the US Constitution states, “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, nor any place subject to their jurisdiction.” Under the provision that slavery would be used as a form of punishment for crime, thralldom evolved from a business model to a legal way of sanctioning criminals. This section discusses the two themes (i) mass incarceration as replacement of slavery and (ii) how corporate interests shape prison populations, as portrayed in the documentary 13th.

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Mass Incarceration as Replacement of Slavery

Immediately after the abolishment of slavery in the US, racist legislation and practices were put in place as systems of racial control and profiteering. When the Civil War ended, the former Confederate States were economically crippled because their main source of wealth, slaves, were not available anymore to be used for moneymaking. However, the 13th Amendment had a provision that could reintroduce slavery legally, and this loophole was exploited to the maximum. In the South, minor offenses were criminalized, and the majority of freed slaves were arrested on trumped-up charges. Given that the victims of this conniving strategy were unemployed, they could not pay the associated fines, and thus they became legal slaves under the new law.

Convict leasing created the need for free labor because private entities, such as corporations and plantations, would contract services of prisoners without paying anything apart from feeding, clothing, and housing the workers. The institutionalization of slavery under the 13th Amendment was a motivation for the criminalization of more behaviors. The Jim Crow era followed closely, and it created more legal grounds for the incarceration of minority groups. This approach to mass incarceration has evolved with time, and currently, it focuses on the war on drugs. Ultimately, slavery returned to the US, but this time, it was legal and thus last.

Corporate Interests Shape Prison Populations

Corporate interests as key determinants of prison populations infiltrated the system under the convict leasing provision. As mentioned earlier, private entities, including plantations and corporations, would contract services of prisoners at minimal costs. Given that the former Confederate States of America had to rebuild the decimated economy after the Civil War, the demand for free labor from prisoners was high, hence the need to imprison more freed slaves. Besides, after the abolishment of slavery, black people have continuously fought the system that dehumanizes them through legal provisions. However, the more they fight, the more the system responds violently through mass incarcerations.

Therefore, the demand to have private-run prisons was created out of this scenario. Such correctional institutions are run with the aim of profiteering, and thus the involved parties formed the controversial American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). According to the documentary, corporations sponsor this body to convince legislators about the need for having laws that create more prisoners. Currently, over 25 percent of US legislators have ties to ALEC. Some legislators have even introduced bills with ALEC branding to be passed as laws. As such, corporations under the guise of ALEC determine the number of people that should be imprisoned by influencing policymaking.

Analysis of Topics

From the many topics that have been studied in class, two of them, sentencing offenders and the war on drugs, are related to the contents of the documentary, as discussed in this section.

War on Drugs

According to the class notes, the war on drugs started in 1784 under the guidance of Dr. Benjamin Rush, and it continues in modern-day America. However, some of the approaches that have been used to fight drug abuse and usage intersect with the contents of the documentary 13th. The laws that are applied to criminalize the use of drugs meant that blacks would be affected disproportionately. According to the class notes, the war on drugs is the main source of racial disproportionality, along with the belief that incarceration is the correct penalty for drug offenses. Similarly, the 13th Amendment ensured that blacks, as freed slaves, would be highly affected by the provision to imprison people for minor offenses. Additionally, in the documentary, blacks are likely to be incarcerated because they are segregated.

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Without proper means and systems of creating wealth, they are bound to break the rules and commit punishable offenses. In other words, the law is punitive, and it does not focus on creating an environment for blacks to thrive. Similarly, in the war against drugs, President Reagan welcomed an era of punitive drug law enforcement. While the federal budget for law enforcement increased significantly, that of drug treatment and research decreased. Therefore, drug offenders are imprisoned without receiving proper healthcare help to address the problem. Once freed, such offenders are likely to be rearrested for the same offenses, thus making it a vicious cycle that punishes blacks just as the 13th Amendment legalized slavery.

Sentencing Offenders

Under the discrimination continuum studied in class, policies contribute significantly to different forms of discrimination. Additionally, under direct discrimination, the severity of the sentence for a crime is based on race, ethnicity, or gender. In the documentary, the 13th Amendment discriminated against blacks albeit subtly. For instance, people convicted of minor offenses without the capacity to pay the associated fines would be imprisoned and work as slaves. Freed slaves were highly likely to commit minor offenses, and they did not have the means to pay for the fines. In addition, under the Jim Crow legislation, blacks were segregated, and they would be jailed for crossing certain lines. The laws that were being used during this period were discriminatory in nature, and thus blacks were affected disproportionately.

According to the class notes, blacks are more likely to receive harsher sentences as compared to whites for drug offenses, which is a form of subtle discrimination. In other words, any form of discrimination happens when justice is not applied evenly, which has been the case of sentencing offenders in the United States. According to the documentary, the loophole in the13th Amendment was created deliberately to discriminate against freed slaves. In the documentary, President Clinton is shown taking a hard stance on the war against drugs by signing into law harsh penalties on such crimes. This approach to the war against drugs is similar to that applied by President Reagan as studied in class. As such, the topics studied in the class carry almost the same themes as those highlighted in the documentary.

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