Monday, August 19, 2019

Slavery, sugar, and the Texas prison system

Two New York Times articles published over the weekend deserve readers' attention for their illumination of racist history that informs many of the Texas topics covered on this blog.

First up, Bryan Stevenson has an excellent piece on the role of slavery in development of modern prison systems. While many authors have cited this history as the source of modern-day racial disparities, Stevenson focuses much more on slavery's contribution to Americans' acceptance of excessively harsh and dehumanizing punishments, including public torture and maiming of victims while white onlookers gathered in crowds eating deviled eggs and drinking lemonade.

Though not focused on Texas, Stevenson also described the convict leasing system common throughout the South that dominated Texas' prison system well into the 20th century.

In Texas and Louisiana, the story of convict leasing centered in large part around sugar, with the now-defunct Imperial Sugar in Sugar Land, Texas, the center of the industry in the Lone Star State. In Louisiana, we learn in another Times story titled, "The Barbaric History of Sugar in America," "Even today, incarcerated men harvest Angola’s cane, which is turned into syrup and sold on-site." The author argues that the modern American sugar obsession wasn't inevitable. Refined sugar would have remained a rare luxury product without the existence of a large, captive work force that could be coerced to perform labor which free men would never choose.

Every evil thing done to make sugar under slavery also happened on the Jim-Crow-era prison farms. The unmarked graves cropping up around the old Central-Unit property in Sugar Land are a testament to this dark legacy.

Serendipitously, on the most recent Reasonably Suspicious podcast, Michael Hall and I included a song in the Top Five Great American Prison Songs that speaks directly to the these sugar-plantation practices: "Ain't No Cane on the Brazos." I had never heard the original version before, and it's amazing. Give it a listen:

The song describes black prisoners cutting cane on the Brazos River from 1904 to 1910. At times this business was so deadly they'd run across bodies of fellow inmates on "every row," the song declared. (Some of those described are surely men whose corpses are being discovered now.) When cane couldn't be cut fast enough, according to the song, black women were brought in to work alongside the men. Every line is punctuated by mournful moaning in which the suffering in the cane fields is made heart breakingly palpable.

Indeed, this history was a big part of the reason Grits pushed for closing the Central Unit a few years ago. True, I'd like to close many more prisons, but there was a reason the Central Unit was targeted first. When the wind down took longer than expected, I wrote:
For my part, the Central Unit's economic role in the prison system's ag business was one of the reasons I favored it as a prime target for closure. Not only was Central's historic role symbolic, breaking it up would end some of the last remaining physical vestiges of the old convict leasing system, replaced to a lesser and far-less brutal extent in the modern era by in-house agricultural operations on the agency's vast real estate holdings. Grits isn't surprised it has taken longer than expected to untangle a century's worth of economic ties wrapped up in the Central Unit's operations, but I'm glad it's happening.
Certainly, one could point to stories (and songs) about inmates cutting down timber in the East Texas forests, or even picking cotton. But harvesting cane was especially deadly and unremittingly terrible. What happened at the prison units around Sugar Land was a human-rights tragedy of immense proportions, perpetrated with state government's profit-sharing cooperation and explicit stamp of approval.

Check out the two Times pieces linked above, they're describing important, seldom-discussed history with significant implications for the Lone Star State.

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