On March 20, 2017, Jewish Community Action at the University of Minnesota and the Minnesota Public Interest Research Group hosted a screening of the documentary 13th in Bruininks Hall. The documentary focuses on mass incarceration and the errors of the American prison system.
13th was released September 30, 2016, and is directed by Ava DuVernay. It received an Academy Award nomination for Best Documentary Feature at this year’s Oscars.
The United States contains five percent of the world’s population and 25 percent of the world’s incarcerated people. Through her documentary, DuVernay asserts that this figure is caused by systems of oppression and the disproportionate targeting of people of color.
The title 13th refers to the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, which reads, “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.”
The 13th Amendment allows for involuntary servitude by convicted persons and is what makes prison labor legal. DuVernay’s documentary asserts that the legality of prison labor perpetuates systems of slavery today.
Through the criminalization of behaviors, freed black people could be arrested and forced to work if they were unable to pay fines, or became incarcerated. The documentary asserts that this convict-leasing led to an incentive to criminalize more behaviors for the financial gain of free labor.
Following the Civil Rights Movement and the end of Jim Crow Laws, a new era of suppression began in the War on Drugs. 13th asserts that the Republican Party was able to draw support for the War on Drugs through moral panic and promoting the fear of drugs’ consequences. The War on Drugs’s emphasis on punishment instead of treatment and long mandatory sentences were both ways to further suppress minorities in the United States. The influx of people caused the prison system to turn to the private market to satisfy demand.
The film explained that private companies exploited the free labor of prisoners to make a profit. This lead to an incentive to keep prisons full, the creation of groups to lobby for longer sentences, and the lobbying for more criminalization of small offenses. These private prisons are not more efficient and often show higher rates of abuse than federal or state ones.
13th also explores the role of the American Legislation Exchange Council (ALEC) in continuing practices that lead to mass incarceration. Per the film, ALEC is funded by corporations and funds Republican efforts to be tougher on crime and support the prison system. It also is funded by corporations that make huge profits off prisons and only benefit from more people being incarcerated. The film makes many fact-based assertions that point out the errors in the American prison system.
However, it fails to address opposing facts.
The war on crime wasn’t only supported by white conservatives; many minority leaders also wanted to rid their communities of drug-based violence. Reverend George McMurray was a lead pastor for the Mother A.M.E. Zion Church in Harlem in the 1970’s, and called for the lifetime sentencing of drug dealers. Members of the Congressional Black Caucus met with President Ronald Reagan to advocate for an amplification in the response to drug offenses.
The flaws in the prison system are undeniable. Ending minimum sentences and providing fair punishments for crime would help end the harm being done to minority families.
13th is available for viewing on Netflix.