On September 9, 2016, the 45th anniversary of the Attica prison uprising, prisoners from at least twenty-one states began striking against what they called “modern-day slavery.” The strike stands as one of the largest in U.S. history (figures are difficult to verify and the California prison hunger strike in 2013 involved at least 30,000 people) and several prisoners have lost their lives in this struggle. Prison strikers’ language is not hyperbolic. As Ava DuVernay’s new documentary on the 13th Amendment highlights, the very amendment that abolished slavery and guaranteed the legal emancipation of nearly four million enslaved people also carved out space for the continuation of slavery “as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.”
In 2015, President Obama became the first sitting president to visit a U.S. prison. Since then, he banned the use of solitary confinement in federal juvenile prisons and the Bureau of Prisons recommended ending its contracts with private prisons. Obama has also commuted the sentences of hundreds of nonviolent drug offenders. Yet these changes only affect a small number of people housed in the federal prison system, which itself accounts for less than 10% of the total incarcerated population in the U.S. And while the war on drugs has ruined countless lives, most people in prison are not incarcerated for drug offenses. So Obama’s commutations do not address the main reasons people have been incarcerated; further, commutations shorten their sentence while leaving intact a host of restrictions—including disenfranchisement—faced by people with felony convictions. In a recent presidential election decided by fewer than one million votes, there were over six million voters disenfranchised for felony convictions.
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