From breaking chains to breaking the cycle

by Katherine Ramsey
January 7th, 2021

According to the American Civil Liberties Union, the United States accounts for nearly 25% of the world’s prison population despite only making up approximately 5% of the global population. Prison systems have become a multi-billion-dollar enterprise, allowing companies to source products from the free labor provided by prison inmates. Despite the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery in 1865, prisoners, a majority of whom are BIPOC, have become “new-era slaves” – treated as subhuman, exploited for free labor, and often targeted because of their race. This stems from a loophole in the 13th Amendment: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime…shall exist within the United States.” This has been used since the amendment’s ratification to systematically perpetuate the mass incarceration of Black Americans.

The 2016 Netflix documentary, 13th, explores this loophole, showing how mass incarceration has poisoned the U.S. The documentary begins by addressing why mass incarceration of Black Americans began, stating, “When slavery was abolished, there was 4 million people who were formally property, who were now free. This left America, especially the South, with the question of what to do with these people.” In order to rebuild the Southern economy, Black men were marked as a danger to society, especially to “pure, white women” and were arrested en masse, often for minor crimes. Black Americans, especially Black men, were labeled as animalistic and menacing. From terrorization to segregation, the United States has always institutionally characterized Black people as second-class citizens When President Nixon came into office, mass incarceration skyrocketed under the guise of “law and order.”

According to Nixon’s advisor, John Ehrlichman: "The Nixon White House…had two enemies: the antiwar left and Black people…We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or Black but by getting the public to associate hippies with marijuana and Blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities…Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course, we did.”

In 1970, at the beginning of Nixon’s administration, the U.S. prison population was 357,292. By 2014, this number had jumped to 2,306,200. For a white man, the lifetime likelihood of imprisonment is 1 in 17. For a Black man, however, the likelihood is 1 in 3. Despite Black men only accounting for roughly 6.5% of the U.S. population, they make up 40.2% of the prison population. Black people have been targeted, made into felons, and disenfranchised. Despite the need for change, politicians cannot be left to fix the problem alone; everyday citizens must also step up to fight mass incarceration and the repression of BIPOC communities. Although 13th is only a 2-hour documentary that brushes the surface of mass incarceration, it provides a starting point for the public to learn and stand up for those whose voices have been ignored and vilified. Recognizing and overcoming mass incarceration is just one way we can remember their voices.


“13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution: Abolition of Slavery (1865).” Our Documents, The National Archives and Records Administration,

"13th Promotional Poster." The Cascadia Advocate, Northwest Progressive Institute, 8 Oct. 2017, review-ava-duvernays-13th-offers-eye-opening-look-at-mass- incarceration.html

DuVernay, Ava, director. 13th. Netflix, 2016, q=13th&jbv=80091741.

“Mass Incarceration.” Mass Incarceration | American Civil Liberties Union, American Civil Liberties Union, 2020,