Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude . . . except as punishment for a crime . . . shall exist.
–13th Amendment (1865), U.S. Constitution
YES, it’s true! The 13th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution still permits slavery for anyone convicted of a crime and imprisoned. Locked up now for over 17.5 years, I wrote “The 1865 Burden” as a poem to provide a behind-the-scenes peek at America’s 1865 slavery legacy — as it’s “being” applied in 2020 to me and other Washington state prisoners, and similarly to prisoners across the country.
The 1865 Burden
KNOW YE, future objects of vengeance
Your enslavement was decided in 1865
As criminals, you are Property of the State
HENCEFORTH, we authorize WA DOC to:
Strip away the dignity of your humanity
Assume control over your personal affairs
Yoke you tautly as fitting beasts of burden
Commoditize you by way of menial labor
Set a minimum grazing gratuity of 42¢/hr
Your day’s labor shall not exceed a meal tip
Lawfully deduct up to 95% of your monies
Of $100 from loved ones, pay you only $5
For 30+ years, deny cost OF living increases
Yet annually increase your costs FOR living
Ergo, increase your medical copay fees
Rec fees, and food and property prices
Feed you comestibles suitable for animals
Labeled, “Not fit for human consumption”
Offset budget cuts by reducing food quality
Supplement meals with pricey food packages
Provide offerings that exploit your loved ones
Design and benefit from the below offerings:
Phone company contract kickbacks
Deductions of money from loved ones
Jpay media contract kickbacks
Food and property program kickbacks
Misusing the Offender Betterment Fund
Signed and executed by:
WE THE PEOPLE of 1865
Slavery Pacifists / Slave Owners
Inmate 1-2-6-6-4-1-7-5 — that’s my other “name.” The name I’m forced to answer to on a regular basis lest I be found in disobedience of a direct order by refusing to answer to a state-issued number, insisting on being called by the name my parents gave me at birth. In others words, when you come to prison your personal identity is no longer considered central to your existence but rather something you forfeit the minute you were convicted and sent to a state or federal prison. Perhaps it was designed to dehumanize prisoners, make them feel they are no longer worthy of being afforded the same identity as those outside these walls; but this would be pure speculation. Whatever the case, I refuse to accept the degradation and institutionalization that becoming a number over my name places upon me. And thank goodness countless others don’t accept this inhuman form of treatment either.
I am continually encouraged when I walk in the visiting room and find it full and vibrant with family members and friends who are there to visit a bunch of “numbers.” They find great comfort in spending quality time, laughing, crying, and holding hands with their “numbers.” It confirms the notion that people truly can be gone but not forgotten. How easy (theoretically) it would be for those who love us to get on with their lives when we come here. Surely they could find enough things to do throughout the day to occupy their time; they don’t need to accept our calls, come visit us, and write us letters, right? I mean, who in their rational mind would waste their time on a number, anyway?
I am also perpetually in awe at the sheer talent that exists in such a restrictive, callous dwelling. One would logically suspect that prison would squash and squeeze the life out of anyone here, rendering them useless, unmotivated, and devoid of interest in doing anything productive and challenging for the years they’re here. Thank goodness this is anything but true! To the contrary, it appears that prison has a way of producing any and all hidden talents that people never knew they had, often to their amazement. Artists create pieces that have rendered themselves speechless. Mechanics and builders learn their crafts from a technical aspect that they never understood before, enabling them to land good-paying positions in their respective fields when they are eventually released. Musicians: where do I begin? It’s always mesmerizing to actually watch a guy pick up a guitar, harmonica, or keyboard for the first time, study and practice the foreign instrument diligently for months and years, finally reaching the point where he can play inspiring, crowd-pleasing solos.
As a tutor I have had the privilage of working with men on their formal education for over 11 years now. I always find it remarkably touching to see a man begin the GED curriculum with zero confidence and even come within seconds of quitting out of frustration; then months (or years) later I see him at his graduation donning a cap and gown, hugging and crying with his family who are there to celebrate their momentous occasion. They are invigorated about life for the first time, understanding they now have more opportunity than life had ever showed them prior to that point. Tell them they are nothing more than a number. Tell their families that their loved ones are nothing more than a mere state identification number.
Clearly my examples of human potential and value could go on for pages, but why belabor the point? Instead, I will close with this: it is true that I am referred to as a number — a statistic even — but I also know I am so much more!
This is an email I received from our remarkable friend Jacob, incarcerated in Washington’s Monroe Correctional Complex. Jacob is organizing an inmate fundraiser, to help us pay for our new website after we lost our funding.
Oddly, America, and I suppose humanity as a whole has a long history of allowing our diversity to cause divisiveness.
When the English first began settling here, they persecuted and slaughtered innumerable Native Americans. Then as more Europeans came, the divisiveness continued as the Irish, German, Italian and others were designated as less than because they were different.
The era of slavery, which many of us (myself included) imagine as ending after the civil war, took on many more sinister faces.
One startling example is the Black Codes, which were enacted by the southern states post war, and required freed “blacks” to have a written verification of employment every year, else they were arrested for vagrancy, and rented out to the highest labor contractor. Then, since they were not slaves which required food and health to be useful, they would work them to death, or beat them brutally and leave them to die.
This provoked the Reconstruction Era, and brought about the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to our constitution.
However, the horrors persisted through the 1960’s when the civil rights movement gave a minor reprieve… Which brought about the creation of our modern prison industrial complex. Devastation to communities torn asunder by the incarceration of their (for the most part) men, fatherless children, families without providers…and then the return of men damaged beyond repair by their incarceration experience. Men who further burdened their communities by the cruelty they often had to embrace in order to survive inside.
Our diversity in here has caused divisiveness, historically. Whites v Blacks, Latino v Latino…and all of us against the guards, as well as society.
We are all human. We are all citizens of America. We all matter. We all have much more in common than we do differences.
Yes, my dear friend, you and I know this truth, but how do we get that message to the people that do not know?
When I get out, I intend to do public speaking and one of my key goals will be to raise awareness about the continued value of every man, woman, and child. Free or incarcerated.
Today’s blog post comes from Shawn Ali Bahrami, who is serving his 20th year in a Texas state prison (since he was 17 years old). Shawn has always proclaimed his innocence, and you can read his story here.)
Shawn agreed to write a post for us about the harsh working conditions of Texas inmates.
Group singing: Hard work-work,
Hard work-work … Lead man counting/singing: and you – four-step <the line steps forward> Group singing: Hard work-work …
I used to work at Mickey D’s,
Now I have to chop the weeds — four step
On time and in a straight line!” shouts the armed, gray-uniformed prison guard, who supervises his Field Squad of roughly thirty inmates from atop his snorting beast.
“And if you can’t talk and work at the same time, then shut the fuck up, or I’ll write you a case!”
“Fuck-you, Bitch, and that case!” shouts back an anonymous inmate from the work-line.
“Alright, just for that, I want them aggies head-high, and anyone who isn’t flat weeding head-high gets a case.” The guard looks at his work roster and puts a mark next to two names.
The bunched-together, rhythmic, straight line of white-uniformed inmates swing their aggies/hoes in unison, doing work in the scorching Texas sun, yet moving with the precision of a school band.
“One-two-three,”the squad hits the grassy ground three times, “and you — four step.” On the lead man’s command, the squad steps forward on the fourth count.
The Field Squad’s blade-tipped sticks lift head-high, then bang the drum of the ground, repeatedly and manually, they mow down all the waist-high grass in their path. Clods of disturbed, dry dirt billow into a cumulus dust cloud around them. Snakes shoot scared through the grass. Huge ant piles are sidestepped. Critters are pocketed and later taken back to cells as pets. The chorus of singing continues over the drumbeat of the aggies.