Crime, Punishment, and American Understanding

To some, the enabling of race-based punishment by the American legal system exists in plain sight. The Thirteenth amendment, which permits slavery and involuntary servitude as punishment for a crime, was ratified in 1865, (National Archives, 2022), two years after the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation. The incredibly racialized nature of the amendment is important because it indicates a continued relationship with slavery despite the content of the amendment itself. It is worthwhile to wonder why slavery and indentured servitude could not be abolished altogether. Was slavery so important to the American economy that slavery had to remain a last resort? Was it simply because of outright racism? The answer to this question is far more complex than the question itself. This inquiry leaves us with the first of three questions: How has the utilization of law influenced or created normative racist standards about crime, punishment, and Blackness?  

Virginia inmates working at the Staunton lime grinding plant

A black and white photo of inmates working at the Staunton lime grinding plant, 1914. 

A major tenet of American law- both in writing and in practice- is founded in the notion of objectivity. This objectivity awards defendants with an unbiased approach to their case and their treatment as the venture through the criminal justice system. Why then, is there empirical evidence of racial bias in prosecution decisions, sentencing decisions, and prison demographics? (Sawyer and Wagner, 2023). This question involves an analysis of criminal practices after the abolition of slavery, as the foundation of this inquiry lies in an observation of both punishment practices and motives for imprisonment. Ultimately, the genesis of the 13th amendment acted as the catalyst for contemporary forms of legal racial violence. From here, the linkage between Blackness and servitude, as well as Blackness and criminality could persist and evolve.  

Virginia State Prison Farm

The Powhatan side of the Goochland State Prison Farm, 1952

The Virginian prison system experienced a rapid evolution post slavery, both in philosophy and in modality. Because the loss of slavery meant the abolition of free and/or cheap labor, many southern states turned to the prison industry system wherein a corporation would establish a contract with a state prison- or even establish a prison themselves- and inmates would then produce goods for limited or nonexistent compensation, (VA Department of Corrections, 1989). Additionally, the “state farm” system was established with the same goal in mind. Here, though, inmates would carry out their labor on farms owned by the state where they would tend livestock and crops, (VA Department of Corrections, 1989). The parallels to slavery are not lost here, but it is only after the recognition of this relationship that the relationship between crime and Blackness can be explored further.  

Map of Goochland, Virginia

A map of Goochland County. The large plot of land utilized for the Prison farm can be seen in the Powhatan region. 

Ultimately, the contemporary construction of the prison system was crafted with the prioritization of profit, cheap labor, and industry over rehabilitation. This, to me, adequately explains the perception of Black criminality from Jim Crow all the way to Black Lives Matter. This prioritization was fueled by overcriminalization and racist mythologies about Black freed people solely for the sake of furthering state industry and state profit. These motives, and the myths that fueled them, are representative of an incredibly insidious flaw in the American criminal justice system that has existed since its very conception.  

A Map of Richmond Virginia

A map of Richmond, Virginia dated to 1863 with Libby Prison mapped in the South Eastern region. 

Keller, G. P., Lacy, K. D., & Keller, J. T., Survey of State Owned Properties: Department of Corrections1–109 (1989). Charlottesville, Virginia. Retrieved 2023, from

National Archives and Records Administration. (2023). 13th amendment to the U.S. Constitution: Abolition of Slavery (1865). National Archives and Records Administration. Retrieved May 3, 2023, from,place%20subject%20to%20their%20jurisdiction.%22 

Sawyer, W., & Wagner, P. (2023). Mass incarceration: The whole pie 2023. Prison Policy Initiative. Retrieved April 24, 2023, from 

Isabelle Degraff 

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