In AP American history, I did a relatively poor job of memorizing constitutional amendments. As an overwhelmed teen with several AP classes, attempting to gain college credit, and feeling like my entire life hinged on this one year, I learned the basics, the key words, catch phrases, all the things that would make it sound like I knew what I was talking about. I didn’t comprehend much of the social applications of the amendments or their political purposes. Consequently, I spent much of my life connecting the 13th amendment with the abolition of slavery and not with the exception allowing slavery written into it. It’s a brutal truth I missed in the rush of learning facts and years and names. Slavery is enshrined in our constitution and allowed as punishment when a person has been found guilty of a crime. I’ve witnessed this slavery throughout my life, though those enslaved are called prisoners, inmates, and convicts. My exposure to this form of slavery in Georgia brought me to the understanding I missed as a child in Louisiana.
My sons and I love to go to parks where we live. We have beautiful parks, more than I can count, peppered throughout our city. Their bathrooms are typically clean and stocked well with toilet paper, soap, and paper towels. The garbage cans are emptied regularly and the grounds are landscaped. The men who work diligently to provide these places to play and exercise work in blue uniforms, identical, and they’re surprised when we wave to them and say hi. Several have gently pointed to the truck they arrive in, a reminder, so that we don’t accidentally cause them to be reprimanded. The sign on their van they reference tells us not to talk to them, to stay back. Even so, every wave we have offered has been returned. In Georgia, prisoners are not promised payment of any kind for the work they complete while incarcerated. Where I live, these modern day slaves provide over $10 million in labor yearly.
Where I grew up, I would hear the word Angola on the radio and see it in flashes on the television screen or on the front pages of newspapers in the grocery store. As an elementary student, I found Angola on a map and wondered why people in New Orleans would be talking about a place over in Africa. The Angola I kept hearing about is a prison in Louisiana, named for the plantation it was built on, which was named after the birthplace of its original slaves. This prison has a horrific reputation. Most of its inmates are people of color while its guards are white and known locally as “Freemen”. Angola’s first prisoners lived in the plantation’s slave quarters and farmed the land, just as its slaves did prior. Much like plantation hierarchy, inmates who had shown good behavior or found favor worked indoors, while those who were less liked by those with power were sent to work in the fields. Currently, Angola is 18,000 acres with a rodeo and, of course, cotton. The land is worked, the cattle are herded, and slavery thrives.
When I was 17, I knew nothing of prison except for headlines. In my innocence and ignorance, I missed the nuance in the 13th amendment. In order to free slaves, to get any support for this radical idea, there had to be proof that slavery could still legally exist. Angola dates back to the early 1880s, less than 20 years after the 13th amendment was passed. The prison system that gives me beautiful trails and free doggie poop bags began before Angola. Even now, the U.S. continues to have juries lacking diversity. Given the unlikelihood of a fair trial, countless people have been wrongfully imprisoned. When we wanted our white supremacy but couldn’t get away with calling it that, we just changed the words we used. Some of the current inmates of Angola might very well be cultivating the same soil their ancestors did. In Georgia, to those working for free, their slavery is constitutional. Their lack of freedom is protected by the very law meant to free everyone.