Enslavement continues in the US. It is called prison

Staying silent and doing nothing is no longer an option, which is why Black friends, families, employees, citizens, and their allies are marching on Washington

Ashish Prashar
Saturday 29 August 2020 16:10 BST
In America, Black people are incarcerated at five times the rate of white people
In America, Black people are incarcerated at five times the rate of white people (Getty)

The 13th Amendment, enacted at the close of the Civil War, didn’t exactly end slavery when it stated, “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.”

Enslavement continues in the US. It’s called prison. Staying silent and doing nothing is no longer an option, which is why Black friends, families, employees, citizens, and their allies are marching on Washington. A march of this magnitude hasn’t been planned since 1963 and seeks to drive systemic change in how Black persons are treated by the justice system.

In America, Black people are incarcerated at five times the rate of white people. One in four Black men will go to jail at some point in their lives. Rather than continue to contribute to a dehumanising system, we must apply pressure to dismantle it – in the streets, at our desks, and on the trading floor. We must divest from every link in the supply chain and take responsibility for the role businesses play.

A “prison-industrial complex” is not possible without the “industrial” part, which comprises thousands of US businesses, many publicly traded and household names. These corporations have monetised crime and punishment with the government’s help. They fight for positioning to siphon off their share of the $80bn (£60bn) in tax dollars spent annually to keep 2.3 million incarcerated, putting profit over everything.

As the Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests continue, people are clamouring for an overhaul of the justice system – from policing to prison to life afterwards. Before Covid-19 and BLM protests, businesses weren’t interested in taking a permanent stand, fearing economic risks. Now is not the time for weighing economic risk or parsing profit margins. It’s time for US businesses to divest from the prison system.

Companies have acted before.

South Africa’s apartheid began to crumble under economic pressure between 1977 and 1986 as civil rights groups, labour organisations and a campus divestment movement took root and blossomed in the United States. In 1977, Rev Leon Sullivan, a General Motors board member, wrote seven principles that companies operating in apartheid South Africa should follow. While some saw these “Sullivan Principles” as a smokescreen for companies with economic interests to stay in South Africa, they emboldened activists, student protesters and Black South Africans.

When Coca-Cola withdrew from South Africa in 1986 and sold its assets to Black South Africans as well as white, the move was a major victory for racial equality, but it was a necessity. The unified front of students, activists, shareholders and employees in the US with activists in South Africa and the civil disobedience there forced the withdrawal.

Today Americans are voting with their feet in the streets and their dollars to push everyone, businesses included, to end police brutality and mass incarceration. In a recent poll, 69 per cent of Americans say Black people and other minorities aren’t treated equally in the justice system, a high-water mark. If, 30 years ago, American companies could forego a foreign economic interest, they can eradicate racism and slavery at home.

Businesses have to back up words with action. The blow to apartheid was devastating because major corporations withdrew from the economy. Companies must do the same now.

First, we must divest by ending all financial relationships with companies that profit from or participate in the prison system. Public pension funds and university endowments must divest from companies that sell products and services to prisons as well as from vehicles like mutual funds and exchange-traded funds, many of which invest in these sectors and which millions of Americans own. In April, Worth Rises campaign group released a report called The Prison Industry: Mapping Private Sector Players (2020) cataloguing 4,100 corporations that support prison labour directly or through supply chains and called for immediate divestment from 180 large, publicly traded companies.

Secondly, companies and organisations using prison labour must cease those activities immediately. While there has been a slow departure from some companies, hundreds of others still support US prison labour. Economically disenfranchising prison labourers by paying them nothing or less than a dollar a day is as morally reprehensible as the chain gangs of Jim Crow and the original slave trade.

Finally, every publicly traded US company should be required to adopt a form of the Global Sullivan Principles. While there is debate on the efficacy of social responsibility pledges, if accountability is institutionalised, good can result.

We will all have to look back on our actions in this moment and see how serious we were about justice and discover what side of history we and businesses were on. Without change, any claims of solidarity with communities of colour are for naught. The answer will be apparent: the prison system will either be gone, or it will include more of us. We have an opportunity to improve the course of history and lead our country to a just revolution.

Ashish Prashar is a justice reform campaigner, who sits on the board of Exodus Transitional Community, Getting Out and Staying Out, Leap Confronting Conflict and the Responsible Business Initiative for Justice

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