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In September 2021, I visited the newly expanded Equal Justice Initiative’s Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration, in my maternal grandparents’ hometown, Montgomery, Alabama. I was struck by the range of artifacts used to chronicle each era. Consider these1854 slave market advertisements from the Montgomery Advertiser and Gazette – still the local newspaper!
Catalog of Negroes, mules, carts, wagons and Co., to be sold in Montgomery. Headlines included: Wenches and bucks, quality Negroes for sale.
Nancy – about 26, fieldhand, cannot recommend her particularly, complains of indisposition, but probably a proper master might cure her.
Ben – A strong and hearty man, about 30 years old, an excellent field hand, and a remarkably handy boy, in any use, being usually quick and intelligent; a No. 1 Negro.
Suckey, A remarkably intelligent Negro girl about 15 years of age, understands General house work well for her age; can sew tolerably, and is a most excellent nurse and attendant for children; has remarkable strength of constitution, and never known to have been complaining even for a moment; a pretty good field hand, and would make an excellent one.
Allison – about 15, fine body and house servant, carriage driver and Ostler, honest, steady, handy, healthy, smart, intelligent, and in all respects a choice and desirable boy.
Mary Jane – about 11.
Martha – about 10.
Louisa – about 7.
Old George – as faithful and honest an old African as ever lived.
His wife Judy, the same sort of character.
Henrietta – about 24… First-rate cotton picker.
One of the humans being trafficked recounted:
“To test the soundness of a male or female slave… They are handled in the grossest manner, and inspected with… disgusting minuteness… in the auction room where the dealer is left alone with the ‘chattels’ offered… God has recorded the wickedness that is done there, and punishment will assuredly fall upon the guilty.” -J. Brown.
The ebb and flow of freedom.
Each exhibit in the ‘Enslavement to Mass Incarceration’ museum takes visitors seamlessly through the Atlantic slave trade, past Jim and Jane Crow segregation, to a recorded face-to-face visit with a real-life, modern-day inmate. As you enter what seems like the final hall, you are confronted with an array of individual seats at a glass window/screen projecting an inmate calmly sitting, waiting. Like a real prison visit, there’s a telephone, which once lifted, the prisoner does the same, introduces themselves, and recounts their story. History confronts you in the present: The confederacy surrendered on April 9, 1865. By 1898, 73% of state revenue came from convict leasing. Now?
One explicit goal of the EJI project, reflected and reinscribed in the exhibits’ descriptions, is a shift in language from slavery and slaves to human trafficking and enslavement. Surely, one can feel the sublingual, subliminal shift from victimology to responsibility, and that implies accountability. To be clear, the entire economy centered around usurping land, driving-out or exterminating the indigenous people, human trafficking and slave labor, shredding the natural environment into farmland to produce cotton, cane and tobacco, manufacturing a range of commodities from these raw materials, trading around the world. Who got rich? Whose labor was exploited?
Who is accountable for giving birth to Jim Crow, if slavery died with ole Abe Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation? Who is accountable for cultivating chronic poverty and voter intimidation, if we’d exterminated white lynch mobs through the Civil Rights codes of the sixties? Who indeed is responsible for mass incarceration? The exhibits challenge language that focuses on the victim and remains hush about the status quo, masking the ensuing abuse of power needed for its maintenance, especially hidden from abusers who may themselves be exploited by the myth of meritocracy.
As a side note, perhaps people will not actually be able to reckon with this cognitive dissonance of heroic CONfederate generals and their cause to uphold each state’s right to let white men traffic and enslave Blacks. I’d truly like to see public statues of say, the valiant General Lee, standing next to two or three statues of enslaved people, and a few statues of the white people charged with the quotidian physical labor of enslavement, e.g., driving labor (whip crackers), capturing and punishing escapees (slave catchers, the original law-enforcement force), breaking in new arrivals (torture), breeding ((gang)rape), and general humiliation throughout these duties (sadomasochism). Perhaps the museum just needs to add another exhibit with busts of them.
With stark population stats posted big and bold as visitors transition from room to room, the exhibits chronologically shift through significant eras. Today in the prison industrial complex there are 8 million incarcerated. 10 million were segregated under Jim and Jane Crow until the Civil Rights movement. 9 million terrorized by lynching, accelerating the erosion of Reconstruction. The nation was born and raised with 12 million kidnapped and enslaved Africans. Dear reader, right now I ask, what precisely has our nation done to upend caste?
When I think back to thinking about choosing a degree, way back when, I remember thinking Criminology would be a good choice because it is specific in terms of a field: mainly the Criminal Justice System (CJS). I remember, naively, thinking once I achieved my degree I could go into the Police (a view I quickly abandoned after my first year of studies), then I thought I could be involved in the Youth Justice System in some capacity (again a position abandoned but this time after year 2). And in third year I remember talking to my partner about the possibility of working in prisons: Crime and Punishment, and Violence: from domestic to institutional (both year 3 modules) kicked that idea to the curb! I remember originally thinking Criminology was quite narrow and specific in terms of its focus and range: and oh my was I wrong!
Whilst the skills acquired through any degree transcend to a number of career paths, what I find most satisfying about Criminology, is how it infiltrates everything! A recent example to prove my point which on the outside may have nothing to do with Criminology, when in actual fact it could be argued it has criminological concepts and ideas at its heart is the 2015 film: Jurassic World. It is no secret that I am a huge lover of Crichton novels but also dinosaurs. But what I hope to illustrate is how this film is excellent, not just in relation to dinosaur content: but also in relation to one of my interests in Criminology.
Jurassic World, for those of you who have not had the pleasure of viewing, focuses on the re-creation of a Jurassic Park, sporting new attractions, rides and dinosaurs in line with the 21st century. The Indominus Rex is a genetically modified hybrid which is ‘cooked-up’ in the lab, and is the focus of this film. Long story short, she escapes, hunts dinosaurs and people for sport, and is finally killed by a joint effort from the Tyrannosaurus, Blue the Velociraptor and the Mosasaurus: YAY! But what is particularly Criminological, in my humble opinion, is the focus and issues associated with the Indominus Rex being raised in isolation with no companionship in a steeled cage. Realistically, she lives her whole life in solitary confinement, and the rangers, scientists and management are then shocked that she has 0 social skills, and goes on a hunting spree. She is portrayed in the film as a villain of sorts, but is she really?
Recently in Violence: from domestic to institutional, we looked at the dangers and harms of placing individuals in solitary confinement or segregation. Jurassic World demonstrates this: albeit with a hybrid dinosaur which is fictitious. The dangers, and behaviours associated with the Indominus Rex are symbolic to the harms caused when we place individuals in prison. The space is too small, there is no interaction, empathy or relationships formed with the dinosaur apart from with the machine that feeds it. The same issues exist when we look at the prison system and it raises questions around why society is shocked when individuals re-offend. The Indominus Rex is a product of her surroundings and lack of relationships: there are some problematic genes thrown in there too but we shall leave that to one side for now.
There are a number of criminological issues evident in Jurassic World, (have a watch and see) and all of the Jurassic Park movies. Criminology is everywhere: in obvious forms and not so obvious forms. The issues with the prison system, segregation specifically, transcend to schools and hospitals, society in general and to dinosaurs in a fictional movie. Criminology, and with it critical thinking, is everywhere: even in the Lego Movie where everything is awesome! Conformity and deviance wrapped up in colourful bricks and catchy tunes: have a watch and see…
“Waking up to gray walls and black bars…in the silence of ones own thoughts, leaves one to a feeling of somberness…as those around begin to stir and began their individual day, hope creeps into ones mind….as the discussions regarding legal strategies began, hope then becomes more than just a shadow…as guys began to discuss their potential future beyond prison and being locked in a cell for days at a time, hope becomes more than just a fleeting moment! Silence can sometimes be ones own enemy on death row:-…So I condition myself to discover the “why” I fight through the fits of depression and despair, instead of focusing on the “how’s”….because pursuit of the “why’s” bring about methods of finding a solution….encouragement to remain hopeful!”
Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person (1).
Without the right to life, we cannot enjoy the freedoms set forth in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
However, what if one’s life was imprisoned and waiting to be ended for crime? In addition, what if a person was to be put to death for associating with a particular demographic?
The death penalty is the authorization of the state to kill a citizen for a crime, whether it’s murder, rape, treason, or more severe crimes, such as crimes against humanity and genocide (2).
Whilst the death penalty can be a deterrent, provide justice, and be the ultimate punishment for a crime and justice for victims, it is also used in some countries to persecute minority groups, such as the LGBT community (3) (4). (In references, there is a link to an interactive map of countries that utilize the death penalty for LGBT groups).
According to the Death Penalty Information Centre (DPIC), around 82% of cases involving capital punishment, race was a determining factor of giving this punishment, in comparison to white counterparts (5). However, the justice system is far from perfect, and miscarriages of justice occur. Due to issues of racism and racial bias (particularly within the American Justice System), this has seen members of minority groups and innocent people put on death row whilst a criminal still walks free. A damning example of a miscarriage of justice, and a clear demonstration of racism, is the case of George Stinney, whom, at the age of 14, was wrongly accused of murdering 2 girls. He was taken to court, tried by an all white jury, and was given the electric chair (6).
This, ultimately, is the state failing to protect its citizens, and causing irreparable damage to others. The George Stinney case is a condemnatory example of this. On top of that, it is hard to measure deterrence, and whether capital punishment actually deters people from committing crime.
However, what is it actually like being on death row?
June 2017 saw the start of a new friendship – a unique friendship. What simply started out with me wanting to reach out and be a ray of light to someone on death row, turned into a wonderful experience of sharing, support and immeasurable beauty. In June 2017, I began writing to a man on death row, and simply wanted to be a ray of light to someone in a dark place.
He has shared some of his thoughts of what it is like to be on death row:
“Perseverance. This is key when facing a day in prison (physically and mentally) because is never “where” you are physically, but your ability and willingness took push through those times of adversity and overcome the very things that have the power to bring you down….such as evil”. BUT- when we examine the word “evil” look closely…. Do you see it yet? ….. It’s “LIVE” backwards and to me its when we lose our patience to “LIVE” that we have brushes with “evil”…no???? So within these walls I do my best to find the “silver lining” and develop the better aspects of me”.
Now, it may seem effortlessly -but- in all honestly….its very difficult to face each day with the uncertainty of knowing whether the presence I have is one that has significance….in here I have to prepare myself on a constant basis in order to be the best version of myself no matter what lays ahead.
Thankfully….I have met an incredible person, who guides me by way of her words…offers me comforts by way of her thoughts and prayer and encourages me through her never ending presence! She is beautiful in every aspect of the word…She has helped me to discover that EVERYTHING and NOTHING awaits beyond forever!
(1) Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UNDH) Article 1 Available online at: https://www.un.org/en/universal-declaration-human-rights/ Accessed on 21/01/2020
(2) Louise Gaille ’15 Biggest Capitol Pros and Cons’ Available online at: https://vittana.org/15-biggest-capital-punishment-pros-and-cons Accessed on 24/03/2020
(3) The Human Dignity Trust ‘Saudi Arabia: Types of Criminalisation’ Available online at: https://www.humandignitytrust.org/country-profile/saudi-arabia/ Accessed on 24/03/2020
(4) Death Penalty Information Centre ‘Executions By Race and Race of Victim’ Available online at: https://deathpenaltyinfo.org/executions/executions-overview/executions-by-race-and-race-of-victim
(6) Snopes Fact Check ‘Did South Carolina Execute 14-year-old George Stinney, then declare him innocent 70 years later?’ Available online at: https://www.snopes.com/fact-check/george-stinney-execution-exoneration/ Accessed on 24/03/2020
Interactive map of countries where the death penalty is used against the LGBT community: https://www.humandignitytrust.org/lgbt-the-law/map-of-criminalisation/?type_filter=crim_gender_exp
Human Writes: https://www.humanwrites.org
“History is not just stuff that happens by accident, we are the products of the history that our ancestors chose, if we are White. If we are Black we are products of the history our ancestors most likely didn’t choose.”Kevin Gannon, 13th
And many of our cities in Britain are this melting pot due to the very same history our ancestors chose / didn’t choose; and the reason Britain has a variation of different faces is much to do (but not only) because of Britain’s colonial ambition.
Episode seven of the latest series of Who Do You Think You Are? was on TV entertainer Sharon Osbourne. Her family were victims of the Irish Potato Famine. Whilst the episode skirts over it, saying it occurred due to crop failures (with no real explanation), some would suggest that it was due to heavy-handed (British) colonial rule which assured those crop failures, leading to mass migration, starvation and death. For a show that is basically a series of history lectures, it does a good job of tiptoeing around uncomfortable (truths) bits of history.
As the late Jamaican philosopher and academic Stuart Hall said, “We are here because you were there” and we are now all here together, the products of our ancestors’ choices. I’ve been following this series of Who Do You Think You Are? with great interest and fascination. Almost every episode has had me hooked. And this latest episode with Sharon Osbourne was heartbreaking, with her great-grandmother Annie being the sole survivor of her six siblings, after disease and weakness took them.
The family emigrated to Massachusetts, USA in the mid-19th century and they worked in a cotton mill, the biggest in America and the second biggest in the world, only dwarfed by one in Manchester, Lancashire.
What irked me was the lack of contextual explanation around cotton during this time. Why wasn’t there any explanation regarding the history of cotton in the United States? Moreover, that relationship between American cotton and the mills of Lancashire and Cheshire (some 4500 mills in Lancashire and southern Scotland). What about the Industrial Revolution and how colonialism and the enslaved Black people that paid for it?
In a country still living in the aftermath of The Slave Trade, you cannot talk about cotton in America without talking about where the cotton came from. The same cotton made into cloth in Massachusetts would have came from cotton plantations, whether picked by African-Americans slaves (pre-1865) or “like-labour,” post-Civil War – since after abolition, the establishment entered into something called convict leasing. Prisoners loaned to plantation owners for a period, which (in itself) was legalised slavery. A loophole in the 13th Amendment stated that you could not be a slave, unless you were a criminal and imprisoned, thus America enters mass incarceration.
Black people in America were arrested for minor crimes like theft and vagrancy, and then imprisoned in mass. These prisoners were “rented” and put to work on plantations through the South – sugar, tobacco, cotton and more. The fact they didn’t feel the need to mention the context behind cotton in America is astounding, nor how the American cotton trade impacted Britain, for example the Lancashire Cotton Famine (1861 – 1865).
Yes, this episode is about Sharon Osbourne’s ancestors, but they were part of a longer story – a subtler history – the other half of cotton’s history that isn’t taught at school. And in places like Mississippi, where cotton was sailed down the Mississippi River by paddle steam, the local planters said:
“Cotton Is King.”
In Britain, we learn about spinning jennies. We learn about water frames and the Child Labour Act (1833), but not where cotton came from. This is American history and British history. It’s also working-class history. But in addition, it’s Black (British) history.
We are here because you were there; this is the history our ancestors chose, if you are White. But if you are Black, it’s the history your ancestors didn’t choose. And the least we can do is tell it right.
13th. Dir. Ava DuVernay. Netflix. 2016. Streaming platform.
Alexander, Michelle. The New Jim Crow. New York: The New Press, 2010. Print.
Olusoga, David. Black and British: A Forgotten History. London: Macmillan, 2016. Print.
For those of you who follow The Criminology Team on Facebook you might have caught @manosdaskalou and I live from Eastern State Penitentiary [ESP]. In this entry, I plan to reflect on that visit in a little more depth.
We first visited ESP in 2011 when the ASC conference was held in Washington, DC. That visit has never left me for a number of reasons, not least the lengths societies are prepared to go in order to tackle crime. ESP is very much a product of its time and demonstrates extraordinarily radical thinking about crime and punishment. For those who have studied the plans for Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon there is much which is familiar, not least the radial design (see illustration below).
This is an institution designed to resolve a particular social problem; crime and indeed deter others from engaging in similar behaviour through humane and philosophically driven measures. The Philadelphia Society for Alleviating the Miseries of Public Prisons* was philanthropic and guided by religious principles. This is reflected in the term penitentiary; a place for sinners to repent and In turn become truly penitent.
This philosophy was distinct and radical with a focus on reformation of character rather than brutal physical punishment. Of course, scholars such as Ignatieff and Foucault have drawn attention to the inhumanity of such a regime, whether deliberate or unintentional, but that should not detract from its groundbreaking history. What is important, as criminologists, is to recognise ESP’s place in the history of penology. That history is one of coercion, pleading, physical and mental brutality and still permeates all aspects of incarceration in the twenty-first century. ESP have tried extremely hard to demonstrate this continuum of punishment, acknowledging its place among many other institutions both home and abroad.
For me the question remains; can we make an individual change their behaviour through the pains of incarceration? I have argued previously in this blog in relation to Conscientious Objectors, that all the evidence suggests we cannot. ESP, as daunting as it may have been in its heyday, would also seem to offer the same answer. Until society recognises the harm and futility of incarceration it is unlikely that penal reform, let alone abolition, will gain traction.
*For those studying CRI1007 it is worth noting the role of Benjamin Rush in this organisation.