Los Angeles — The prosecutor told me I had a choice: Either serve several months in prison or accept community labor for 20 days — which is really a month of work, since most folks get at least two days off a week.
This seemed a little severe to me. I was arrested for protesting against Bank of America’s record number of foreclosures. California has a very high foreclosure rate, and last year unions and activists joined with Occupy LA in a sit-in at the bank in downtown Los Angeles.
My sentence was unusually harsh for that type of action. Anyway, being Black, I do feel like I’m owed reparations for the slave labor my African ancestors had to do in this country. Still, my sentence for community labor was small relative to the many folks caught up in the criminal justice system who’ve lost their ability to sell their labor.
According to the book “Sensible Justice” by David Anderson, “The modern era of community service began in 1966 in Alameda County, California. Judges there began imposing work assignments as an alternative to jail for indigent offenders who could not pay traffic fines. Eventually they extended use of the sanction to other low-level convicts as well. … Sentencing offenders to unpaid labor inspired some judges’ creativity as they combined community service with jail or a fine or both.”
Yes, judges do get “creative.” The amount of money you must pay after doing the labor depends not on the person’s income, but on the whim of the judges and prosecutors. After finishing my slave labor, I found out I still owed $170 to the court, for the “service” they afforded me.
The version of community service I received was called “community labor.” This means you must work for the county government’s Transportation Authority or Parks and Recreation.
Our job was to clean floors and bathrooms at the Expo Center where the Olympics were held in 1998, as well as work on the huge Rose Garden at Exposition Park where the hit TV show “Scandal” is sometimes filmed. Yep, that show profits off the free labor done by folks like me.
100 percent racial profiling
Being in relatively good health, the work was not as strenuous as it was tedious and tiring in the hot sun all day. What was really hard to take, however, was the further proof of racist injustice. Most were there from driving-under-the-influence convictions or driving with suspended or no licenses. Those kinds of crimes are committed across the board ethnically. In fact, white people drink and drive about 10 percent more or less than Black and Latino/a peoples, depending on the study you look at.
One 2005 study from the University of Texas School of Public Health used data from a survey of 39,250 adults 18 years of age and older made by the U.S. National Household Survey on Drug Abuse in 2000. It said that self-reported rates of DUI were highest among white men.
Yet, in the 20 days that I worked, I saw not one white person doing community labor. About 25 percent of the workers were Black and 75 percent Latino. Why? Because of racial profiling and the random checkpoints used by police, located mostly in Black and Latino neighborhoods, to capture offending drivers in LA.
Despite unemployment being so high, the majority of the maintenance work is done with free, court-appointed labor. In fact, 81 percent of the revolving workers at the Rose Garden are court-appointed.
In this economic crisis with high unemployment, local and state governments, desperate to make up revenue that once came from workers’ taxes, seek out varied schemes to lay off public employees to balance budgets, rather than getting it from banks and industry profits.
And under capitalism, the replacement of jobs using the criminal justice system is in sync with private prisons run for profit and exploitation. In a January 2013 article for Global Research titled “The Prison Industry in the United States: Big Business or a New Form of Slavery,” Vicky Pelaez writes that “in privately-run prisons, [inmates] receive as little as 17 cents per hour for a maximum of six hours a day, the equivalent of $20 per month.”
By 2008, she writes, major Forbes 500 companies like IBM, Boeing, Motorola, Microsoft, AT&T, Wireless, Texas Instrument, Dell, Compaq, Honeywell, Hewlett-Packard, Nortel, Lucent Technologies, 3Com, Intel, Northern Telecom, TWA, Nordstrom’s, Revlon, Macy’s, Pierre Cardin, Target Stores and many more were outsourcing jobs to prison labor.
My free labor and the expansion of prison labor, however, is nothing new.
Although back in 1865 slavery was outlawed by the Thirteenth Amendment, except as a punishment for a crime, Southern states then began passing a series of laws to allow the jailing of newly freed Black people using charges of vagrancy, loitering, riding the rails, changing jobs or just talking too loudly in public. Prison time was accompanied by stiff fines and sentences.
This resulted in a phenomenal increase in Black people forced into labor to pay off their debts or being leased out to work for various employers.
Palaez refers to this history in her article: “Prisoners were then ‘hired out’ for cotton picking, working in mines and building railroads. From 1870 until 1910 in the state of Georgia, 88 percent of hired-out convicts were Black. In Alabama, 93 percent of ‘hired-out’ miners were Black. In Mississippi, a huge prison farm similar to the old slave plantations replaced the system of hiring out convicts. The notorious Parchman plantation existed until 1972.”
So the next time the ruling class eyes your pension plan or demands cutbacks or layoffs, I hope my relatively few hours, along with the many other hours of slave labor produced by the criminal justice system, will further incline you to tell them that we’ve already given enough. Now it’s their turn.