13th: Documenting Slavery to Mass Incarceration in the United States

By: Ethan Glenn Robinson

In recent decades, a foreboding term has permeated much of American debate on social justice, and that is mass incarceration. No document educates a viewer more on this subject than the documentary 13th. Nominated for an Academy award and recipient of numerous other honors, 13th by Ava DuVernay affirms that the essence of slavery has not died in the United States, but rather lives on through the mass incarceration of colored people into a privatized prison-industrial complex.

13th emphasizes that when we look at mass incarceration and events of racial tension such as in Ferguson, we must realize that these things do not just happen randomly in the heat of the moment. Everything in American society is the product of history in motion, a chain of consecutive events leading up to our present day. If we are open-minded to history and the development of our nation’s society, then we should naturally then ask ourselves the question of “why.” Why does the United States make up only 5 percent of the world’s population, but 25 percent of the world’s population in prison? Whether we want to address it or not, this is a real fact of the United States and it should prompt people to be informed as to why.

The progenitor of the documentary’s name is the 13th amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which you probably already know as the amendment that abolished slavery at the end of the Civil War. One might ask, if the Civil War and the 13th amendment ended slavery in this country, then how can it exist today? 13th informs that slavery, on the contrary, had the ability to adapt through one clause of the 13th amendment, except as punishment for a crime. During the late 1800’s, this clause allowed prisons to further exist but also provided a lawful reason for freed slaves to be imprisoned, often into forced labor, after being vehemently demonized by society.

Following the Civil War, there was a former slave population of thousands upon thousands then trying to integrate themselves into a predominately white society. With slavery gone as an essential economic factor in the wake of a complete loss in the war, the South was reeling and viewed blacks with hatred because of this. Very early on in the Reconstruction era, blacks were immediately labelled as savage, criminals, and practically subhuman. This sentiment is clearly evident in the film “Birth of a Nation” (AKA The Clansman), released in 1915 by D.W. Griffith. In this film, a black man is portrayed as the savage highwayman rapist, while the KKK is shown as the heroic force capturing and defeating him.



Not only was the film groundbreaking in terms of budget and production for its time, but it also fueled a general sentiment of manic fear of the black population. Being black became basically synonymous with being a rapist and a criminal, and this sentiment in 1915 even helped spark a new wave of the KKK movement and lynchings were at their highest at the turn of the 20th century. Blacks were much more discriminately arrested than whites and charged for very minor offenses, often being forced into a prisoner labor force called “convict leasing” when inmates could not pay fines.


“… except as punishment for a crime.”


As years progressed, colored people were further disenfranchised through Jim Crow laws restricting access to basic rights as citizens, such as the right to vote, as well as through the enactment of segregation. For 100 years after the Civil War, blacks were still held under the law and societal perspective as second-class citizens. Even the leaders of the Civil Rights movement were labelled as criminals. Today we hold Martin Luther King Jr. in high esteem and praise, but during the 60’s, the FBI had King and many other peaceful leaders on a list as one of the most armed and dangerous people in the United States. The anti-black label “criminal” still survived to be applied to Civil Rights leaders and it eerily resembled the message of the film “Birth of a Nation.” The Civil Rights Act of 1964 abolishing segregation and discrimination by race was a bold first step in addressing this problem in the United States, but unfortunately issues persisted as we approached the 70’s.

At that time, crime had risen exponentially, and many politicians and leaders placed the blame on the civil rights movement, even though it was probably a culmination of economic factors and the Vietnam War. The U.S. prison population was now roughly 450,000. President Nixon during his campaign began a new slogan of promoting “law and order” while people began to fear black communities as crime infested ghettos. The word “war on drugs” was also heard for the first time and used as a justifiable reason for raiding colored communities.

One of Nixon’s top advisers, John Ehrlichman, was caught on tape saying, “The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”

By 1980, the prison population was now 750,000, and the emergence of Ronald Reagan into the presidency in 1981 really accelerated this “war on drugs.” The face of Nancy Reagan started the “Just Say No” campaign, which gave way to D.A.R.E., and President Reagan himself pushed for more anti-drug legislation. One of these was to enact much more strict punishments on crack than cocaine. Crack was a cheaper drug found more commonly in black communities, and as a result of Reagan’s legislation, blacks were getting life sentences for crack while rich whites were comparatively getting slaps-on-the-wrist for cocaine, even though cocaine and crack are basically equal in terms of danger.

Even Newt Gingrich today believes that crack and cocaine should have been treated the same under law, saying, “The war on drugs was a war on communities of color.”

As we reached 1990, the prison population finally hit 1,000,000.

The show “Cops” then received airtime, where it was often colored people being portrayed as the “super predators.” Hillary Clinton early in her career even referred to these colored people are “super predators.” Under law, children under 18 continued to receive life sentences.

George Bush Sr. released a campaign advertisement attacking Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis, referencing criminal Willie Horton and how Dukakis allowed the program Horton was given a weekend pass with to continue.



This primitive fear of black criminals was appealed to even though there is much more history of interracial rape with white on black than there is black on white. Again, it evokes memory of “Birth of a Nation.”

When Bill Clinton was elected, he took a more centrist view on crime and the war on drugs, however he still enacted strict crime laws. Out of this came the three strikes law in LA, and the system for mandatory minimums for sentences. Sentencing was much more strict, and parole heavily restricted, and to add to this unfairness to colored people, even today 95 percent of all elected prosecutors in the U.S. are white.

In 1994, Clinton passed the “Federal Crime Bill,” which he called a crime bill for the 21st century. This bill called for increased funding for state prisons and police departments, providing militarized equipment to both local police forces and SWAT teams alike. This is where a “militarization” of the police began.

By 2000, the prison population doubled to 2,000,000 in just a decade. With these numerous pieces of evidence in mind, I cannot help but beg the question of why this prison population keeps increasing? Wasn’t increased funding and support for the justice department supposed to decrease crime, not cause it?

Bill Clinton now admits that he thinks the 1994 crime bill was a mistake and that it only aggravated colored communities even more. In the 2016 democratic candidate debate, Hillary Clinton was questioned about the bill as well.

13th professes that you cannot tell black history in the United States without telling about its struggles with the justice system. The Black Panthers was used as a scapegoat to vilify the civil rights movement when they were in fact very small and had little to no chance of actually harming the greatest military force in the world. Peaceful protest leaders such as Asatta Shakur and Angela Davis were being marked by the FBI as armed and dangerous and even arrested and threatened with the death penalty. Davis remembers bombs dropping around her home in Birmingham, the house shaking, and her father having guns at his disposals at any moment in case they were attacked.

Today, Black Lives Matter is the one being demonized. In 2014, the prison population hit 2.3 million.

Neighborhood watchman George Zimmerman kills Trayvon Martin. Martin was unarmed, and you can hear him scream help on the tape shortly after Zimmerman was told to stop pursuing him. Zimmerman did not stop. He was found not guilty based on the Stand Your Ground law in Florida. This police brutality event sparked the movement we see today.

ALEC is a private corporation that first came up with the Stand Your Ground law. It’s a lobbying conglomerate that has both politicians and corporations as members. Under this umbrella, corporations such as Exxon-mobil and Verizon under ALEC get to lobby their interests to congress (mostly Republicans). Templates are provided for numerous kinds of bills, where politicians can simply insert their state. You can literally go onto their website and search for “model policies” that you want.



Walmart was a member of ALEC at the time that Stand Your Ground was passed. Walmart is the biggest chain retailer of long guns and ammunition in the U.S., which implies that they directly benefitted from the Stand Your Ground law. Shortly after the Trayvon Martin murder, Walmart gained media attention for this and left the ALEC umbrella, but still sends funds to it today.

The problems with interpreting ALEC laws is that the jury was not informed during Zimmerman’s trial that Martin also had the right to stand his ground, since he was being assailed with a handgun. ALEC also proposed the Three Strikes and Mandatory Minimums laws.

Many corporations followed and left ALEC, but many remain such as the CCA. The CCA was the first prison private company in the United States. It is sadly a basic fact that private prison companies maintain profit by keeping prisons full.

A stop and frisk for immigrants policy was passed called SB 1070. This was proposed by ALEC and directly benefitted the CCA by increasing the amount of prisoners CCA prisons held. Now there’s a direct shift of immigration policy merging with the justice system. Just look at Donald Trump, “…and some I assume are good people.”

ALEC further gets involved by trying to privatize probation, releasing wrist and ankle bracelets to monitor activity. Meanwhile, GPS companies make money off of the GPS monitor.

There are also vendors in private prisons that charge too much money for phone calls. Securus Technologies, for instance, makes 114 million annually. A minimum wage job would have to work an hour and a half to afford a 10 minute phone call.

UNICOR makes money off of prison labor. We may think that poor free labor happens abroad in South America or China, but it happens here at home just as much. Inmates make and ship numerous things in these programs, such as microsoft products, patriot missile parts, JC Penney clothing, and Idaho potatoes.

Another issue is that colored people are now too poor to pay bail. Those accused would rather plead guilty to a crime and get a lighter sentence, because if they choose to go to trial then they’ll have to pay for even more defense. Courts save money by expediting the process and getting quick pleas out of the accused.


Being convicted as a felon is a scarlet letter that follows you the rest of your life. It can affect job applications, food stamps, housing, insurance, and even student loans. 30 percent of Alabama black men have lost the right to vote because of this. Jim Crow laws have returned but in a new form, depriving rights in the justice system and when left as a citizen.

I want to make clear that this is a problem with both the left and right. Both have contributed to the problem and addressed it. But how can we trust the government with solving this issue if they cannot take the historical context in mind?


The likelihood of a white man going to jail during their lifetime is 1 in 17. For blacks, it is 1 in 3. Black men make up just 6.5 percent of the U.S. population but 40.2 percent of the entire prison population. There are now more black people in our modern jails than there were slaves in the 1850’s.

“…except as punishment for a crime.”

From slavery, to convict leasing, to Jim Crow laws and segregation, and now to mass incarceration of colored citizens.
I do think these aspects of the American justice system evoke a sense of negativity in the world, because other nations are watching us. Vladimir Putin uses these facts to portray us negatively in his propaganda ministry.

The fact of the matter is that all lives matter, and if our justice department is treating one group of colored people unequally then it must be addressed. We are only strong as our weakest link, which is why the Framers of our Constitution made the document intentionally vague to change for the times but also provided inherent rights to ALL citizens.

To solve this, we need to come to terms with the historical precedence there is for discrimination and mistreatment of blacks in our country for hundreds of years. Then, we need to stop privatizing prisons and the justice system, and concentrate on rehabilitation not profit. We must be fair and just above all. Then once an inmate is released, we need to make sure they are provided with just as equal rights in every way as every other free citizen. They paid their debt to society and now they must be a citizen with full rights again. And finally, we need to further eradicate this second class, or ghetto stigma, that still lingers towards black citizens. We need to alleviate the fact that a white father gets to have a talk about the birds and the bees with his son, while a black father has to inform his son about what specifically to do if he’s ever stopped by a police officer.