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It's January of 2013, a Jewish man named David Weisman is arraigned in front of a German criminal court. A few days before his arraignment, Weisman set out to find a fix for his family's financial pickle. His plan was to rob Commerzbank, one of Berlin's most established financial institution. He obtained a weapon, and during the commission of his crime, things went awry. His robbery failed, the act thwarted by the superior risk management policies recently added by the company's loss department.

He's in court on charges of aggravated robbery, a violation of section 250 of the German criminal code. His lawyer's not so hot this time, and the jury finds video evidence very convincing. There's no question that Weisman did the crime; the only question remaining has to do with the length and type of punishment. In this story, the German system allows for some discretion, and the penalties for robbing a bank can range from lenient to unbearable depending upon a person's good or bad luck.

It is late afternoon and the judge is ready to announce a sentence. For Weisman, the penalty is eight years of hard labor in Auschwitz-Birkenau. While there, he'll be asked to line up at 4:30 in the morning, stark naked, alongside his fellow prisoners. He'll be issued wooden shoes that may or may not fit, and he'll be directed to a work detail completed under the sound of an irrationally cheery musical accompaniment. While there, Weisman will see many of his fellow prisoners die, and he'll find himself surrounded mostly by other Jews.

He will be asked to accept his plight and to undergo certain moral rehabilitation. The effort will be led by an Aryan group asserting moral authority, and he will be coerced into accepting new moral precepts to gain approval from those running the historic camp. If he happens to break any of the prison's rules, he'll be moved to one of the camp's many standing cells, where he and a few others will stand for hours on end to break their will and spirit.

The German government stands in approval of this practice, and German profit arm benefits from a significant amount of revenue from the wage-less work of Weisman and others. Around Germany, this result draws little media attention, and when brought to the attention of the public, it's seen as anything but atypical. Some even believe Weisman is getting what he deserves. After all, he was a morally inferior Jew putting property and limb in danger in downtown Berlin.

As you might have guessed, David Weisman is not real. He's a fiction and the described German system is a fiction. But it's a fiction motivated by America and Angola Prison, the Louisiana plantation that both recalls and celebrates America's legacy of human ownership.

Germany wouldn't think of turning the site of its ugliest history into a for-profit prison exploiting Jewish people through the same kind of treatment that's stained the country's history. But we do it here every single day. Angola is now a prison, but it wasn't always that way. Before the state of Louisiana owned the land, it was a part of a larger plantation, where slave labor was used to create a southern financial empire.

And on Angola, we've simply recreated a scene right out of the early 1800s. Once on Angola, few men get out. A combination of brutal sentencing and substandard parole procedures leaves most men on the plantation with de-facto "life" sentences. While there, these men are forced to work in fields. In some cases they work hours and jobs much like the ones that used to take place right on those grounds - they pick cotton and do manual plowing.
The numbers on Angola tell much of the story. More than 18,000 acres cover the Louisiana countryside. More than 5,000 men call the plantation home, and almost 80% of those men are black. Recent numbers suggest that only 12% of men who come to Angola will ever breathe free air again. There, they depend upon four staple crops to turn a profit - soy beans, corn, cotton, and wheat. The plantation features a metal fabrication plant and a license plate recycling facility. For those prisoners who are lucky, it's possible to snag a job as a mop factory worker.

To call it slavery might be an overstatement. Of course, these men are paid. For their minimum of 40 hours per week, the slaves on Angola make somewhere between two and 20 cents. And business is good on Angola. They've recently built a public golf course, and the prison has its own 11,000 seat arena. There, the prisoners are displayed in a manner so disgusting that it should cause widespread revolt.

A few times per year, people can buy tickets to the prison rodeo. The prisoners compete in bull riding, much to the delight of the crowd. They lack training and, most of the time, the proper equipment. They compete in a game where bulls are released on a table of brave prisoners. The last one to leave the table wins. How about the "sport" which asks prisoners to pull a poker chip off of the forehead of an angry bull? You can see all of this and more at Angola, where the line between animals and people is too often blurred.
These "games" are all-too familiar to those who have studied slavery. Owners often coerced their captives into games, enjoying the show while sitting comfortably on the sidelines. One historical record recalls the life of a slave:
on Christmas we had all we could eat and drink and after that a big party, and you ought to see them gals swingin' they partners round. Then massa would have a few good niggers wrestle. Our sports was big fun for the massa and his family. They'd sit on the gallery and watch the niggers put it on brown.
People who break the rules in Angola are often placed into solitary confinement, where they spend 23 hours per day in a cell no larger than the average airport bathroom. These and other prisoners are reminded of their moral inferiority on a regular basis, as their captors supply them with all of the religious materials a man could want. The numbers suggest that 30,000 copies of religious materials are distributed on a yearly basis. Gospel music breaks the silence and Biblical paintings adorn the walls. The prison's warden is proud of his efforts to "reform" these men, and he considers the prison to be a very spiritual place.

These efforts are not dissimilar from the things that happened with slaves in the early 19th century. Slaves had few rights under the command of Southern-style plantation dictators, but one right they did have was the right to surrender their spirit in the name of the spirit. Religion in those times was used to justify slavery, and the Christian brand was often used to keep slaves right in line. On Angola, captives are given a similar right. If they choose, they can learn from the morally superior prison executives - those upstanding souls who make their money on the backs of cheaply acquired labor.

And yet, our sense of moral repugnance is not there. Given our country's history of human exploitation through slavery, it seems almost impossible that we'd use a former slave plantation as the site where we punish people through slave-like labor.

David Weisman is not real, and the fiction of his punishment would never exist. But for many men in Louisiana and states like it, the American version of this fiction is disgusting reality. Used to clean up the BP oil spill - without proper clothing to protect against the known dangers - and used to produce profit in an oppressive, coercive environment, these prisoners are America's new slaves. The industrial prison industry is largely to blame. This industry holds significant power and it's out there lobbying. The laws of our states reflect this political capital, as people are being punished longer for less serious crimes. And few people seem to care.  

Originally posted to Coby DuBose on Criminal Injustice, Race, and Poverty on Mon Feb 18, 2013 at 10:13 PM PST.

Also republished by Community Spotlight.

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