Prison Law Blog

Sara Mayeux

Posts Tagged ‘douglas blackmon

Alabama Inmate Sues Over Banned Book – Douglas Blackmon’s Slavery by Another Name

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Previously I noted Wall Street Journal reporter Douglas Blackmon’s book Slavery by Another Name, a history of the convict-lease system in Alabama. When an Alabama inmate, Mark Melvin, tried to read the book recently, officials at the Kilby state prison seized it, calling the book “incendiary.” Melvin is now suing in federal court with the help of the Equal Justice InitiativeFrom the New York Times:

Mr. Melvin never received the book. According to his lawsuit, he was told by an official at Kilby that the book was “too incendiary” and “too provocative,” and was ordered to have it sent back at his own expense.

He appealed, but in his lawsuit he says that prison officials upheld the decision, citing a regulation banning any mail that incites “violence based on race, religion, sex, creed, or nationality, or disobedience toward law enforcement officials or correctional staff.” (Mr. Melvin is white.)

So he sued.

A spokesman for the Alabama Department of Corrections said officials had not seen the suit on Monday and could not comment.

Mr. Stevenson, who is also the director of the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, said he considered the lawsuit to be less about the rights of people in prison but primarily about the country’s refusal to own up to its racial history.

Prison Labor and the Thirteenth Amendment

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An issue raised by the Georgia prison strike is whether and how much prisoners should be paid for their labor. Here’s the first bullet point from the strikers’ list of demands (which I reproduced here):

· A LIVING WAGE FOR WORK: In violation of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution prohibiting slavery and involuntary servitude, the DOC demands prisoners work for free.

As this is ostensibly a legal blog, I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that it does not, in fact, violate the Thirteenth Amendment to require prisoners to work for free. (That, of course, is an entirely separate issue from whether prisoners should be paid as a policy matter, or whether particular prisoners may have constitutionally cognizable challenges to particular work assignments — I’m speaking here at a broad level of generality.) And I’d rather risk pedantic than remiss, so here’s the text of the Thirteenth Amendment, passed and ratified in 1865, with the relevant language bolded:

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.

This is why states that do pay prisoners can legally pay them well under the minimum wage. From the Prison Policy Initiative, here’s a breakdown of prison hourly wages, ranging from $0 in Georgia and Texas, to 13 cents in Nevada prison camps, to $1.15 in some federal prison industries jobs.

Prisoners also face basically insurmountable barriers to forming unions. As summarized by the Jailhouse Lawyers Handbook:

Prison officials are permitted to ban petitions, like those asking for improvements in prison conditions, as long as prisoners have other ways to voice their complaints. Duamutef v. O’Keefe, 98 F.3d 22 (2d Cir. 1996). Officials can ban a prisoner from forming an association or union of inmates, because it is reasonable to conclude that such organizing activity would involve threats to prison security. Brooks v. Wainwright, 439 F. Supp. 1335 (M.D. Fl. 1977). In one very important case, the Supreme Court upheld the prison’s ban on union meetings, solicitation of other prisoners to join the union, and bulk mailings from the union to prisoners, as long as there were other ways for prisoners to communicate complaints to prison officials and for the union to communicate with prisoners. Jones v. North Carolina Prisoners’ Labor Union, Inc., 433 U.S. 119 (1977).

Given all of these legal barriers, not to mention the practical barriers of prison life, it’s all the more remarkable that Georgia prisoners were able to organize and carry out a collective protest of any kind, much less one that lasted almost a week (well, depending on who you ask, the prisoners or the guards) and that attracted national media attention. Hopefully, their demands will draw attention to prison conditions not just in Georgia but around the country.

For those interested in the history of the Thirteenth Amendment, I’ve posted some notes and recommended reading after the jump. Read the rest of this entry »

Birmingham Confronts a Dark Chapter in Its Penal History

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Slavery by Another Name (Doubleday, 2008), by Wall Street Journal reporter Douglas Blackmon, exposes and meticulously documents the complicity of Corporate America with the efforts of Southern states in the aftermath of the Civil War to essentially re-impose slavery via convict labor. Throughout the South, between Reconstruction and World War II, tens of thousands of black men were arrested on trumped-up or minor charges and then leased out as laborers to companies ranging from small-town entrepreneurs to major corporations such as U.S. Steel. The Pulitzer Prize winning book is being adapted into a documentary film to debut on PBS in 2011.

The Birmingham (Ala.) News has this interesting article about the reception of the book in that Southern city. Although Birmingham is well known for its central role in the Civil Rights Movement, the former steel town has yet to fully confront this aspect of its troubled racial past:

Reading the book, Robert Corley, director of [the University of Alabama at Birmingham]’s Global and Community Leaders Honor Program, was shocked to discover something he’d never known about his great-grandfather, Robert Franklin.

Franklin, a constable and shopkeeper in Goodwater, was convicted of rounding up blacks and essentially selling them to a plantation owner. Franklin was fined $1,000. Corley said no one in his family knew the story and they have been struggling to comprehend it.

Franklin continued in business. When he died in 1946, Franklin’s estate was worth about $1 million. Corley said his own ability to go to college and obtain advanced degrees was in some part due to Franklin’s prosperity.

Corley, who helped design the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute and was a founding member of its board, wonders about the damage done to the men his great-grandfather arrested.

“My great-grandfather was a real criminal,” Corley said. “These others he arrested were not, and yet he didn’t suffer any real consequences.”

Odessa Woolfolk, the BCRI’s former board president, said more attention should be paid to the period between Reconstruction and the civil rights movement. Some worry about bringing up the story, but the facts need to be faced, she said.

“We have a tendency to want to sweep unpleasant facts under the rug,” she said. “I hope that there gets to be more public discussion about the book and the history that the book recalls.”

Written by sara

February 7, 2010 at 2:39 pm

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