Wednesday, May 6, 2009

From the Plantation to the Jailhouse: How Incarceration Has Been Used to Perpetuate White Supremacy

By Luis K. Feliz

Though he could not have put it into words, he felt that not only had they resolved to put him to death, but that they were determined to make his death mean more than a mere punishment; that they regarded him as a figment of that black world which they feared and were anxious to keep under control.
-Native Son by Richard Wright


The prison looms in the consciousness of the African American community as a leviathan structure of control with an overarching objective of perpetuating white supremacy. No other institution better reflects the racial power imbalances embedded in the American fault lines of historical oppression. Furthermore, the prison constitutes a significant intersection of race, power and control with roots in the antebellum South that survive today. For instance, according to Glenn C. Loury, three out of two hundred whites were incarcerated in 2000 in contrast to one out of nine African Americans. Evidently, there is a gross racial disparity between whites and blacks in imprisonment rates in the United States. More importantly, Loury contends “the extent of racial disparity in imprisonment rates is greater than in any other major arena of American social life” (Loury). Put simply this is because one aspect of the whole system of oppression that allowed whites social and economic superiority was the incarceration of black males. That is why the prison is more racially-conscious than any other institution or social body in the United States.

The purpose of this study is to explore the disparities in the incarceration rates among white and black inmates in the “prison state” traceable to the institution of slavery as a panoptic structure employed to maintain white supremacy. In short, the omnipresence of the plantation in antebellum times and subsequently its cousin, the prison in the collective psyche of the African American community, in particular but not exclusively, has functioned and continues to function as a tactic for coercive control. In essence, this discussion is grounded in a Foucaldian reading of the mass incarceration of African American males.

Michel Foucault argues in Discipline and Punish: the Birth of the Prison that the prison is an institution of the “disciplinary society” operating in complete invisibility while also maintaining omnipresent surveillance (214). Foucault attributes the power of omnipresent surveillance to the panopticon, the architectural invention of Jeremy Bentham, the great Utilitarian philosopher. In Bentham’s penitentiary design, a person is placed as a supervisor in a central tower with wide windows that allow the supervisor to observe the inmates down below in lighted cells while remaining invisible to the people under surveillance. In Discipline and Punish, Foucault uses Bentham’s All-Seeing-Machine to argue that although imprisoning more people does not work as a deterrent to reduce crime, it works as far as maintaining a “police apparatus” that depends on delinquents to justify its existence as a mechanism of disciplinary action (234).

Further, Foucault claims that this appalling power-relation is not confined to any particular institution or political body—it is merely “a type of power” (215). But in the context of the African American power struggle with whites in the United States, the All-Seeing-Machine does have a direct correlation to both an institution and to a political agenda; the institution is slavery; the political agenda is white supremacy.

In order to understand the present state of mass incarceration in the United States as it relates to African Americans, the long-lasting impact of the plantation as a panoptic structure has to be contextualized. Like and unlike other institutions of the “disciplinary society,” the institution of slavery depended on the structure of the plantation to instill obedience into slaves. Although the expanse of the plantation was considerable, the masters and overseers used the structure of the plantation, if not to create distrust among slaves, at least to keep them under one watchful eye—the abstract and concrete plantation. That is, the plantation as a physical entity as well as the psychological influence of being under constant surveillance penetrated the social interactions of slaves in that space. Of course, on the plantation the overseers characteristically indulged the nerve of inhumanity in them through cruel practices meant to inspire fear among the slaves. But the overseers were also relatively at ease in terms of monitoring the slaves’ behavior because the plantation as a structure had its own codes of behavior. For instance, in the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave by Frederick Douglass, Douglass recounts how the masters on his home plantation would allow the slaves to drink heavily in a festive day of carnival. Douglas writes: “their object seems to be, disgust their slaves with freedom, by plunging them into the lowest depths of dissipation” (71). By granting the slaves the freedom to engage in heavy drinking in their presence, the master presides over what was supposed to be an intimate respite. Thus, the slaveholder, as one of the many supervisors of the panoptic plantation, penetrates every aspect of the slaves’ life while also reinforcing the slaves’ powerlessness within the divisions of the plantation.


Similarly, Foucault talks about the festivals during the plague in the eighteenth century as a ploy to masquerade division with a semblance of freedom (197). For example, Foucault contends, “there was also a political dream of the plague, which was exactly its reverse: not the collective festival, but strict divisions; not laws transgressed, but the penetration of regulation into even the smallest details of everyday life through the mediation of the complete hierarchy that assured the capillary functioning of power” (197-8). Like the slaves on the plantation, festivities during the plague allowed the royal “authorities” access to the privacy and secret desires of the populace, in effect granting them the power of surveillance in the most intimate of occasions.


Another dimension of the panoptic structure was insecurity. Harriet Jacobs’s narrative, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, chronicles the hardships of an enslaved woman who lives in hiding for seven years in her grandmother’s attic concealed from her master who relentlessly persecutes her as an object of sexual exploitation. Eventually, Jacobs secures an escape to New York on a boat. Shortly after Jacobs settles in New York, the Fugitive Slave Laws are introduced. She recounts in Incidents the desperation and anguish that imbued the lives of former slaves who had fled to the North after the passage of the Fugitive Slave Laws. She writes, “I seldom ventured into the streets; and when it was necessary to do an errand for Mrs. Bruce, or any of the family, I went as much as possible through back streets and by-ways. What a disgrace to a city calling itself free, that inhabitants…should be condemned to live in such incessant fear, and have nowhere to turn for protection!” (652). Although she had escaped to the North, Jacobs is in essence caged. Not only is her former master Mr. Flint persecuting her but the law is also. Therefore, the law was a method of reproducing and reconstructing a new insecurity linked to the preservation of white supremacy. In other words, it was not so much that slaves were forced back into the grips of Southern exploitation as it was that it was lawful to do so. Because the laws were shaped by those who were in power, namely, rich whites, crime could be constructed according to the needs of the people in power.

In short, just as the plantation was a structure of power, so the prison is a structure of power in the collective consciousness of African Americans today. Because of the relationship between the plantation and the law, the prison holds a certain historical as well as psychological paradigmatic relationship to social control among African American males. In fact, if the prison as an institution does not replace the plantation, at least it borrows tactics from it. As the historian Adam J. Hirsch has aptly observed in his book The Rise of the Penitentiary:

One may perceive in the penitentiary many reflections of chattel slavery as it was
practiced in the South. Both institutions subordinated their subjects to the will of others. Like Southern slaves, prison inmates followed a daily routine specified by their superiors. Both institutions reduced their subjects to dependence on others for the supply of basic human services such as food and shelter. Both isolated their subjects from the general population by confining them to a fixed habitat. And both frequently coerced their subjects to work, often for longer hours and for less compensation than free laborers. (71)

The parallels that Hirsch points out between slavery and incarceration as repressive and coercive institutions hinge on regiment. Usually supervision and confinement are used to subordinate, or co-opt the oppressed. Slaves were carefully monitored to ensure that the plantation was operational, that is, to ensure that slaves did not run away. Likewise, prisoners must be carefully monitored to ensure order, that is, that the incarcerated do not render the prison’s usefulness to society obsolete. Discipline is regiment. Discipline means surrendering power. Regiment is powerlessness. If a slave or a prisoner follows a strict routine, he is conditioned to a state of powerlessness because routine reinforces control. Hirsch maintains, “ advocates of the penitentiary, proponents of chattel slavery protested that their institution also performed a crime control function by disabling the crime-prone population of slave states” (83). To slaveholders, what constituted a crime was based on any manifestation that threatened their hegemony.


For example, in response to a slave revolt in Southampton led by Nat Turner in 1831, the governor of Virginia, John Floyd, calls for stricter laws to prevent future slave revolts. Floyd said in an annual address to the Virginia legislature, “I cannot fail to recommend to your early attention, the revision of all the laws intended to preserve, in due subordination, the slave population of our State” (155). The key phrase in this quote is “to preserve” the slave has to, in essence, be kept under supervision and subordination by the laws of the state of Virginia. The reason Floyd gives for this recommendation is the threat to public safety. “The public good requires the negro preachers to be silenced, who, full of ignorance, are incapable of inculcating anything but notions of the wildest superstition, thus preparing fit instruments, in the hands of the crafty agitators, to destroy the public tranquility” (Floyd 155). Because preachers were at the forefront of campaigns against the tyranny of slavery, they were the primary targets of those white supremacists who wanted to perpetuate the status quo. Therefore, to challenge the points of view of such respectable black men in the community, the white citizens protested that preachers were threatening public tranquility. In other words, a threat to public tranquility was coded language for disrupting the status quo, challenging white supremacy. As a result, those African Americans who challenged white supremacy were criminalized because a revolt as a manifestation of dissatisfaction with the status quo was an assault on white hegemony.


Furthermore, Martha A. Myers tackles the issue of how whites used incarceration as a tool to eliminate any challenges to their hold on political and economic power in Georgia from 1868 to 1936 in her essay entitled “Black Threat and Incarceration in Postbellum Georgia.” In short, Myers’ research focuses on the fact that blacks were incarcerated because they posed a threat to white hegemony. For instance, according to Myers, “the relative size of the black population posed more specific political and economic threats during this period [1868-1936]; only male blacks could vote and they were more likely than females to own land or become tenants.” Whereas before emancipation whites targeted the male preachers, after emancipation, whites specifically targeted all black men because they were the ones who were better positioned to challenge their privilege and power.


As a result, another method of disenfranchisement and criminalization was the introduction of Black Codes. According to Angela Y. Davis in her book Are Prisons Obsolete?, “the new Black Codes proscribed a range of actions—such as vagrancy, absence from work, breach of job contracts, possession of firearms, and insulting gestures or acts—that were criminalized only when the person charged was black” (28). The outcome of this was to both strip African Americans of the right to exercise their right to vote as well as confinement. Once African Americans were put away under lock and key, they no longer posed a threat to white hegemony.
Another argument Myers makes about how whites tried to circumscribe opportunity for African Americans was the so-called threat to public safety. African Americans were moving into the cities to find job opportunities. However, whites in Georgia argued that if blacks flocked to the urban areas, it would threaten public safety because of their sheer numbers (Myers). Myers writes: “this was so because whites defined the ‘proper’ place for blacks as being not simply in the South but on Southern farms, well-supervised and uplifted by contact with paternalistic whites.” Given that many former slaves became sharecroppers after emancipation and were in essence tied to the land they worked while enslaved, the panoptic structure of the plantation is replaced by the plots distributed to former slaves once the plantations were broken up. To perpetuate the structure of white hierarchy, African Americans had to remain in the South subject to oppression. Therefore, when African Americans did decide to leave, as was the case during the Great Migration of 1916-1918 to Northern cities, African Americans hoping to leave were targeted and temporarily imprisoned (Myers). Not only were African Americans a threat to white social and political domination, but they were also a powerful labor resource. Consequently, whites would rather imprison African Americans than allow them to leave to the North. In this respect, imprisonment becomes an economic substitute for the plantation economy in the postbellum South. But more importantly, Davis points out:

With the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution, slavery and involuntary servitude were putatively abolished. However, there was a significant exception. In the wording of the amendment, slavery and involuntary servitude were abolished ‘except as a punishment for crime, whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.’ According to the Black Codes, there were crimes defined by state law for which only black people could be ‘duly convicted.’ Thus, former slaves, who had recently been extricated from a condition of hard labor for life, could be legally sentenced to penal servitude. (28-9)

After the rupture of Southern power as a result of the Civil War, the South had to conceptualize itself and its mechanisms of oppression in new ways to maintain the continuity of white domination over the recently freed population of black slaves. In short, the South needed to regain its aristocracy and honor through the prison as a conduit of racial discrimination. Consequently, the convict lease system becomes one of the vehicles through which the transition from the plantation to the jailhouse is most blatantly obvious. According to Alex Lichtenstein as quoted by Davis:

New South capitalists in Georgia and elsewhere were able to use the state to recruit and discipline a convict labor force, and thus were able to develop their states’ resources without creating a wage labor force, and without undermining planters’ control of black labor. In fact, quite the opposite: the penal system could be used as a powerful sanction against rural blacks who challenged the racial order upon which agricultural labor control relied. (34)

Just as the South had relied on slaves to work its agricultural economy, so too had the South relied on former slaves turned into criminals to rebuild the South after the Civil War. The South needed blacks to remain on the land as laborers. “A study of Alabama prisoners during the decades following emancipation discloses that before four hundred thousand black slaves in that state were set free, ninety-nine percent of prisoners in Alabama’s penitentiaries were white. As a consequence of the shifts, provoked by the institution of Black Codes, within a short period of time, the overwhelming majority of convicts were blacks” (Davis 29). As a result, the previously mentioned use of black codes coupled with the advent of the convict lease system was employed not only for an exploitative labor force but also for racist machinations to preserve white supremacy. Ultimately, the disparity in incarceration rates among white and black inmates is complicit with the agenda to employ the law to perpetuate white hegemony.

Finally, to find a definitive answer to settle once and for all the disparity in incarceration rates among white and black inmates is too ambitious an enterprise for an essay. But the goal of this discussion has been to rethink the plantation and incarceration systems through the remnants of history at our disposal, not to find a solution. The plantation as an historical panoptic precedent to the prison offers but a glimpse of the deeply entrenched racism and discriminatory practices inherited from the plantation, and that manifests itself in the disproportionate number of African American males in prisons throughout the United States today. The legacy of white supremacy has not been erased as long as an institution as racist as the prison system continues to be firmly anchored in the experiences of the African American community.



Works Cited

Davis, Angela Y. Are Prisons Obsolete? New York: Seven Stories Press, 2003. Print.

Douglass, Frederick. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. 1845. New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 2003. Print.

Floyd, John. “Stricter Laws Can Prevent Slave Revolts.” Opposing Viewpoints: Slavery. Ed. William Dudley. San Diego: Greenhaven Press, 1992. Print.

Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish: the Birth of the Prison. Trans. Alan Sheridan.
New York: Vintage, 1977. Print.


Hirsch, Adam J. The Rise of the Penitentiary. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992. Print.

Jacobs, Harriet. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl.1861. The Classic Slave Narratives. Ed. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. New York: Signet Classics, 2002. Print.


Loury, Glenn C. “Ghettos, Prisons and Racial Stigma.” Tanner Lectures: Lecture 1. Stanford University. Econ.brown.edu. 4 Apr. 2007. Web. 15 Nov. 2008.

Mauer, Marc. Race to Incarcerate. New York: New Press, 1999.

Myers, Martha A. “Black Threat and Incarceration in Postbellum Georgia.” Social Forces 69.2 (1990): 373-393. Academic Search Premier. Web. 17 Nov. 2008.


Western, Bruce. Punishment and Inequality in America. New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 2006.

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