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Reflections of a Modern-day Slave

'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, or any place subject to their jurisdiction."
(Section 1, 13th Amendment of the United States Constitution.

As I read the Thirteenth Amendment, as a prisoner who is buried alive in a jail cell, it is readily apparent to me that for all intents and purposes, I am indeed a "slave."

The very moment that the cell door slammed shut on me, it felt as though my casket was being lowered into the ground, setting off the official death of my liberty and sparking the genesis of the living nightmare. This has propelled my soul into a state of purgatory and left my spirit straddling life and death.

As I reside in a man-made hell, it is not difficult to imagine the parallel between my current imprisonment and that of the past enslavement of my ancestors.

On the surface, the Thirteenth Amendment claims to abolish slavery. However, the framers cleverly left a side door open in the document which has allowed slavery to continue. The side door has proven to be a trap door for minority men such as myself.

In courtrooms across the country, district attorneys as well as defense attorneys who refer to each other as brothers of the court debate, negotiate, bargain, and barter sentences to be imposed in a manner reminiscent of my ancestors being bought and sold on auction blocks.

The (criminal) criminal justice system is a very well-oiled machine in which the powers that be regularly utilize their weapons of mass oppression in the concrete jungles all over America with military precision. Today, there are overseers lurking and prowling through inner-city streets like big game hunters with their sights fixed predominantly on minority men, ironically in a way equally as steadfast as slave poachers did in the days of old.

They do so by tracking, trailing, and pursuing black and Latino men like heat-seeking missiles hell-bent on putting those who they consider to be society's misfits in what they deem to be their place: the penitentiary. This is accomplished by herding them like cattle into the New Millennium reservations or slave quarters.

What currently represents the image of justice in this country is a blindfolded woman holding the Scale of Justice in her right hand and the Good Book in her left. It supposedly symbolizes that justice is blind, fair, and impartial in the way in which it is laid down.

Furthermore, the law, which is an alleged upright branch that stems from, and is rooted in, justice, is supposed to be, in principle, equal, void of discrimination, and truly color-blind. This injustice is extremely evident when you see and experience it first-hand from behind prison walls, where you only have to look around you to see that both black men and women suffer the misfortune of being arrested and incarcerated at alarming rates.

The Connection to Slavery
In my predicament, where I view the reality of my situation through the eyes of a descendant of slaves and a member of the most historically exploited race of people on earth, it is impossible not to notice that the more things change, the more they remain the same. Generation after generation, people of color remain more inclined to be incarcerated while, on the other hand, prison guards and prison administrators are usually descendants of slave owners and overseers.

Most people who have to endure the misfortune of being devoured into the belly of the beast will eventually be spit back out into the community, where they will be released, in most cases, with strings attached, such as parole and probation, under rigorous circumstances where their so-called freedom is, in reality, far from being free.

Due to being straitjacketed to rigid rules and regulations as well as stern restrictions that happen to be mandated by parole and probation officers, chances are, whenever an offender is at the mercy of authority figures that are merciless, it is not far-fetched for him or her to feel more like a runaway slave who is actually just temporarily at large and only experiencing an artificial semblance of liberty on borrowed time.

They know all along that the slightest mistake or tiniest blunder can swiftly return them back to state prison, state mental hospital, or the house of corrections, which can be better described as the house of corruption, especially when you find yourself locked up in a cell with two or more individuals that is no bigger than the size of a small bathroom. This often causes me to envision and grasp how, once upon a time, my ancestors must have felt when they were kidnapped and forced to board phenomenally overcrowded slave ships, as well as how the slave ships are somewhat similar to how blacks are still warehoused and jam-packed like sardines into overcrowded penal institutions nowadays. There is an understandable connection between the deep-rooted, firmly planted mechanism that was structured centuries ago to guarantee that poor blacks remained exploited commodities and the fact that the slave owners of old have now morphed into shareholders while the contemporary modification of the slave of old has, over time, transformed from sharecropper to "share".

There is a definite link between blacks detained in a state of slavery and blacks detained in the prison industrial complex. After all, being chained and in bondage two or three hundred years ago, or being chained and in bondage nowadays is pretty much the same. Whenever a prisoner is transported to and from prison facilities or court, he or she is chained and bound like an animal. Usually, the offender, like the slave of the past, is handcuffed and chained around the waist and ankles when being moved from one place to another. One irrefutable common denominator is the clear and distinct strategic mutilation of the family structure that was carefully calculated in advance. Another is the heart-wrenching, screeching howls of mothers, fathers, siblings, and slaves' kinfolk as they witnessed the revolting sight of their relatives being sold in public auctions to purchasers by auctioneers, often never to be seen again. This happens to be comparable in many ways to the bone-chilling, indescribably agonizing devastation that contemporary families suffer as their loved ones are fed to the lions, so to speak, and hauled off to prison, evoking feelings that echo watching a relative being led to the gallows or the guillotine. No one is capable of estimating the astronomical extent of pain experienced, nor can anybody accurately determine the incalculable multitude of bloodshed. Neither can anyone tally the immeasurable sea of tears that has flowed from the family members that have suffered from the horrendous barbarities of both the antique version of slavery in the United States and the present existing version. Just as plantation owners once deliberately demolished family units, the non-stop unraveling of family tied continue to be purposefully loosened to this very day.

Imprisoned men and women who are locked up in the dungeons of society exist as an independent entity from their families. The tailspin descent that led to incarceration and the aftermath of their downward plunge left their families in a dreadful state. Trapped behind bars, they find themselves unable to lend needed assistance to their destitute families. In the penitentiary, they are helpless and powerless as a deaf, dumb, and blind quadriplegic stuck in quicksand. The most appalling spectacle imaginable is to see the tormenting anguish in the teary eyes of their heartbroken children.

The majority of inmates manage to maintain their hardened thug fašade on the outside, even though inwardly, their whole world is falling apart and they are dying a thousand deaths upon facing the grim reality that they are no longer able to nurture or financially provide for their family. It is the equivalent of facing a firing squad to see everything that they love and worked so hard for to crumble into ruins right before their eyes.

Looking from the inside out while trapped and entangled in a cocoon of hopelessness and a tomb of despair, completely under the radar and thoroughly detached from normal existence, causes a person confined to prison to feel like they are in a state of suspended animation and comatose in relation to the free world. Simultaneously, as far as the outside world is concerned, prisoners are discarded in a black hole, cast away into the land of the living dead, while life as they once knew it goes on without them.

The whipping post, kangaroo courts, and lynch mobs of the past have transformed into what is now systematized judicial lynching, where there is often an unjustified disparity in how punishment is dealt out and distributed, as is apparent in how blacks undergo and experience disproportionate levels of incarceration.

My heart goes out especially to those who are young, gifted, black, and incarcerated. But, all prisoners are treated like caged animals in America's human zoos. Therefore, an offender has to be as flexible as a contortionist to avoid potential violent confrontations with biased zoo-keepers or ornery inmates. Prisons are extremely dangerous environments. If a prisoner doesn't carefully watch their step, they can be subjected not only to dehumanizing strip searches and humiliating shakedowns-they can also suffer atrocious, sadistic barbarity by Gestapo-like, control-freak correctional officers who seem to be either selected for such nefarious tasks or have taken it upon themselves to brutalize or break the maverick spirits of poor minority men, whom they also label non-conformist and who have consistently demonstrated a pattern of rebellion against oppressive authority which mirrors the vicious manhandling of slaves that their overseer forefathers did before them. They are seemingly following the blueprint outlined by the high-powered masters of "trickonometry" that designed the official laws and policies of deliberate racial exploitation and disenfranchisement of people of color. Not surprisingly, it was the very same capitalist elite class that devised and formulated the fiendish plan that would allow them to reign over blacks by subjecting them to despicable oppression and to a perpetual subservient role.

Slavery was first legalized in North America in Massachusetts over 360 years ago. It was wickedly established as legal and heinously based on a person's skin color. Therefore, in addition to suffering from the maltreatment of legalized slavery, after the so-called emancipation of blacks involved in American slavery, blacks have still had to suffer well over a hundred years of government-sponsored racial discrimination by way of state law. Not only did the establishment support and vouch for Jim Crow Laws, they tyrannically secured their dominance by keeping slavery in existence for the fragment of society that is confined in penal institutions. America's founders also shrewdly protected their interests by making the Thirteenth Amendment the very first amendment to give Congress specific power to enforce it:

"Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation."
Section 2 of the 13th Amendment of the United States Constitution.

Life behind bars is a monotonous, tedious reality, where those in custody are not only deprived of their freedom, but are also thrust into a tremendously stressful situation. It is a combination of intense pressure and increased tension. Being uprooted and carted off to prison is a person's worst nightmare realized. Prisons are emotional torture chambers where convicts are battling daily for their lives. Many times, the worst war is the one that they are fighting within themselves. Existing in bondage is like living in a pressure cooker and mentally burning in hell's fire, overcome by the deplorable conditions and the horrors of impenetrable despair.

The never-ending turmoil causes many inmates to succumb to the unbearable stress, hence falling into the powerful vacuum of depression and full-fledged frustration which makes them more susceptible to indulge in counter-productive behavior. The trick is to do time without it doing you. Prison life is a one-way trip to nowhere. As for me, I'd rather swallow cyanide than come back to prison. Like most convicts, I know that I am salvageable and not beyond redemption. The deck is stacked against convicts who inhabited society's sewers prior to, during, and after their period of imprisonment.

Like many before me and after me, I too will strive and struggle hard to shatter the physical and psychological chains that imprison me. Only the strong will survive and the wise succeed to flip the script. Many, try as they many to change their condition, are like hamsters on a wheel, rarely making any progress. All of this resonates even deeper and really hits home with minority men. Consider the rate of recidivism, which reflects that prevailing belief that the criminal element is stuck in the rut of the revolving door syndrome, where large groups of unprepared and impoverished inmates are released on parole and probation, generally fail, and violate the conditions stipulated on them with disturbing regularity. Quite naturally, the violation ends up leading them right back into the prison population.

Of course, it is easier said than done, but the deck can be reshuffled and the vicious cycle of offender to ex-offender to repeat offender can be broken. However, even the most highly-motivated prisoners, who try their utmost to ensure that they emerge spiritually and psychologically undefeated. Understand the enormous obstacles and immense difficulties involved in making the transformation from model prisoner to model citizen.

My participatory observations as a citizen entitled to , but denied, the most elementary rights, makes me perfectly aware of exactly how the inevitable drawbacks and predictable collapse of today's desperately poor offenders who are cast out of penal facilities with absolutely nothing is inextricably linked to the way my ancestors were unleashed from the plantations following the Civil War. Solitude is a luxury that is not often obtained. If you can't have your freedom, at least you should have your dignity.

Robert Theodore Graham, Jr. wrote this article while incarcerated. He was recently released and currently resides near Boston, MA.


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