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PRISON: The New Slavery?

by Lorenzo Komboa Ervin


Leave it to capitalism to find a way to make a profit from someone else's misery. Over two million of our friends, neighbors, and relatives are in state and federal prisons, for whatever reason, right now. The Prison-Industrial Complex, as it is called by some activists is really a "new" form of slavery with a "twist", it's highly profitable several different ways.

I only call it "new" advisedly because chattel slavery in the early days of this country also had a profit motive, but today's slavery is corporate slavery run by some of the biggest businesses in the country. Its motive is to take a mass prison population of poor people and to make money by :

(1) charging rent and fees for being in jail,

(2) private prisons,

(3) setting up prison corporations to compete with "free" labor, and

(4)exploitation of prison labor by "factories behind fences".

With the rise of the current right-wing (anti-crime) political agenda by both of the major political parties in this country, more and more prisoners have been preyed upon by a vindictive public, egged on by the greedy politicians. For years, the masses of people have been told that prisoners are being "coddled" and treated better than the average worker outside, and in return they want to inflict pain on them more. "Take away their tv sets and radios, seize their weight lifting equipment, stop their visitation with their families, lock 'em in their cells 24 hours-a day, and while you're at it make 'em pay rent just like we do!" These are poor people, many of whom committed crimes in the first place because they couldn't pay their own rent, less known paying the state's rent while in prison. It's a foolish idea, and is even more punitive than the politicians called for, but they were quick to latch on to it. "What a great idea, we *can* get blood from a turnip!"

The idea of creating a private corporation to run the prison system began in 1980 with a Nashville-based company called Corrections Corporation of America. After taking over the Hamilton County (TN.) workhouse for its first contract in 1981, CCA has now spread to 32 states, and several foreign countries. It is traded on the New York and American stock exchanges, and has made its investors billions of dollars in profits. The way it works is that it takes over a prison or series of prisons, promising local government and state officials that it can save substantial amounts of money by running the prison as a morfe efficient "business". This has yet to be proven, even though it slashes the wages of prison guards, and cuts back on prisoner expenses for food, medicine and other supplies. What we do know is that the conditions for the people inside worsens drastically, when a private company takes over. In fact, ten persons have died at the Silverdale workhouse outside Chattanooga since CCA has taken over, and similar artrocities have befallen CCA facilities all over the country, whether the beating or deaths of prisoners, escapes, riots, or strikes. But the mistreatment of prisoners or their protests did not affect the bottom line at all of the CCA prison capitalists. In fact, smelling money, other corporations, especially its main competitor Wackenhut Correctional Services, have entered ther fray like sharks feeding on a bloody carcass. The market between all the corporations is $4 billion dollars in contracts now, and they don't intend to be left out!

Another bulding block of the prison-industrial complex is prison industrial corporations such as the UNICOR, run by the Fedral Prison Industries. UNICOR, based in almost all the federal prisons, makes everything from guided missle parts to clothing and furniture for the military and federal agencies, in fact they make over 500 items. It may surprise some to hear that they have almost $100-500 million dollars in sales, and $30-$50 million in profits each year. By contrast, the prisoners make about $1.00-$2.00 per hour. For years, federal law forbade them from competing with free labor, but this has now been changed, and the low waged prison labor is being used to not only undermine free labor, but drive companies out of business in the private sector. The state prisons have now formed similar companies to run their own prison businesses. One thing for sure, it's not just license plates they make any more!

Finally, so called "factories behind fences", where a company is allowed to hire or rent a prisoner sales force or customer service team, is becoming more and more common. Some of the largest companies in America: Microsoft, TWA, Sears Roebuck and others are using prisoners as customer service agents, seamstresses, airline reservation agents, assemblers, and other workers. This even includes the creation of unique brands of clothing and other products such as "Prison Blues" denim jeans, which are made exclusively in prison workshops. This slave labor has not yet been vehemently objected to by either organized labor, civil rights groups or prisoners rights organizations, though a number of exposes have been done by the radical press. But an effective coalition must be built before it will stop.

The upshot of all this is that this is slavery, and even though the 13th amendment to the national constitution allegedly outlaws slavery, ("except for commission of a crime") it is permitted because these slaves don't belong to a plantation owner, but to the state. They are just "rented out" to capitalist corporations. It is also popular because of the anti-crime hysteria, and putting the prisoners to work is a popular idea. Yet, nobody is seeing the real picture.

Although we want to end prison slavery entirely, prisoners' rights activists, civil libertarians and the Black community generally, must demand that these prisoners be given the same rights as workers outside: that they be covered by OSHA regulations to ensure a safe workplace, that they be given the same rights to organize labor unions, and that they not be exploited by their keepers with their eyes on a fast buck. They should be paid the same living wage as workers on the outside. Ultimately the whole question the outright abolition, or at least of a moratorium on the building of prisons has to be factored in, but this will do for now. Some fairness in the current system.

 on Lornezo's current (August 29, 2000) situation, (September 19, 2000):

Over two years after being arrested for protesting against police brutality at a meeting of the Chattanooga, Tennessee, City Council on May 19, 1998, Black activists Lorenzo Komboa Ervin, Damon McGee and Mikail Musa Muhammad (Ralph P. Mitchell) are scheduled to go on trial September 12. The Chattanooga 3 (as Lorenzo, Damon, and Mikail are known) are charged with violating Tennessee's "disruption" law, a misdemeanor offense that makes it illegal for a person to use "physical action" or "verbal utterance" to prevent or disrupt a lawful meeting. If convicted, Lorenzo, Damon and Mikail face up to a year in state prison.

From its inception, the case of the Chattanooga 3 has been a malicious prosecution hatched by Hamilton County District Attorney General Bill Cox, Black police chief Jimmy Dotson, and other government officials bent on destroying the movement against police brutality in Chattanooga--a city which for years ranked No. 1 for reported acts of police brutality among U.S. cities with populations under 200,000. A few hours before their arrests, Lorenzo, Damon and Mikail helped to organize a protest at Chattanooga City Hall by over 150 people angry over the police killings of two Black men, Montrail Collins and Kevin McCullough, in a two-week period between April 28 and May 7, 1998. Collins and McCullough were two of the over 40 predominantly Black people who have been killed by Chattanooga police since the early 1980s. No police have ever been prosecuted for these killings, but the Chattanooga 3 could go to prison for exercising their First Amendment right to protest against police brutality!

Chattanooga's white political establishment is going forward with the trial of Lorenzo, Damon and Mikail despite the fact that the district attorney had agreed to delay the trial until the Tennessee Supreme Court decides whether to hear Lorenzo's appeal of his 1994 disruption conviction, in which he challenges the constitutionality of the disruption law. In that case, known as the Chattanooga 8, Lorenzo and seven other civil rights activists were tried for disruption for participating in a peaceful sidewalk demonstration in downtown Chattanooga to protest the refusal of a county grand jury to indict the eight police officers responsible for the chokehold death of Larry Powell, a victim of "driving while black." Lorenzo, a former member of the Black Panther Party and a long-time leader in the fight against police brutality and racism in Chattanooga, was one of two people convicted in the Chattanooga 8 case. He appealed his conviction to the Tennessee Criminal Court of Appeals. Despite an excellent friend of the court brief filed by Professor Dwight Aarons of the University of Tennessee School of Law citing the unconstitutionality of the disruption law, the court upheld Lorenzo's conviction in March of this year. Lorenzo appealed to the state supreme court and is now waiting to learn if the court will hear his case.

**It is important to remember that the disruption law has only been used twice in Tennessee--in the cases of the Chattanooga 8 and the Chattanooga 3. Both cases involved Black people who were protesting against police brutality.**

Lorenzo, Damon and Mikail will go on trial in a kangaroo court. They have no chance of getting a fair trial in Chattanooga or anywhere else in racist Hamilton County. This is particularly true for Lorenzo, who, along with other Black activists, has filed several successful civil rights lawsuits against the county and the city of Chattanooga. One of those lawsuits resulted in the defeat of the at-large City Commission government (in favor of districts) and the creation of the Chattanooga City Council in 1990. For the first time since 1911, Blacks were elected to the city government--and the white power structure has yet to recover.

The entire legal and political establishment of the state of Tennessee, including the American Civil Liberties Union, is against the Chattanooga 3 because they are anarchists and Black revolutionaries. Indeed, Lorenzo, Damon and Mikail have not received support from *any* of the major civil rights or legal organizations in the country!

What can you do to help?

1. Write to travel agencies urging them to support the tourist boycott of Chattanooga organized by Lorenzo and a fellow black activist whose father was murdered by a Chattanooga police officer in 1983. For more information about the policekillings and Boycott Chattanooga, visit the website at (Note: Since the web site was created, more people have been killed, bringing the total to over 40.) The attached sample letter to travel agents includes the email addresses of D.A. Bill Cox, Mayor Jon Kinsey, and Tim Andrews, the executive director of development for The Hamilton County Chamber of Commerce. Please send a copy of your letters to us at

2. Participate in picket lines and protests outside the Hamilton County Courthouse during the trial, which is expected to last from Sept. 12-19. We must draw national attention to the unconstitutionality of the disruption law and the politically tainted prosecution of the Chattanooga 3. If you would like to help with the picket lines, please contact me.

3. Contribute to the Chattanooga 3 Legal Defense Fund. If necessary, Lorenzo, Damon and Mikail will take their case to the U.S. Supreme Court, and it will cost anywhere between $5,000 and $10,000 to hire private attorneys.(Lorenzo now has a public defender, and Damon and Mikail have court-appointed attorneys.) In the likely event that the Chattanooga 3 are convicted, $2,000 to $3,000 will also be needed for their bond. Please make your check or money order payable to BANCO (Black Autonomy Network of Community Organizers, which was founded by Lorenzo and Damon in 1999), with a note that you are donating to the legal defense fund. Mail your contribution to P.O. Box 19962, Kalamazoo, MI 49019.

Lorenzo Komboa Ervin, Damon McGee and Mikail Musa Muhammad are courageously standing up for the right of black and justice-minded people in America to engage in political dissent, specifically the right to protest against police brutality. Now more than ever, we must stand up for them.

In struggle, JoNina M. Abron, Founder and Chair, International Committee to Defend the Chattanoooga 3

( follow up )

The Trial That Wasn't

There has been another delay in the Chattanooga 3 case of three Black activists arrested in 1998 at the Chattanooga, (Tennessee)City Hall to protest the deaths of two Black men in late April and May of that year by city police officers. After 150 people went to protest the murders, the politicians had the cops arrest Damon McGee, Mikail Musa Muhammad, and Lorenzo Komboa Ervin for "disrupting" the May 19th City Council meeting. They faced 6 months in prison for this "crime" of daring to speak out against the cops, and after numerous delays, the case was to have finally proceeded to trial on September 12, 2000.

But like the seven other delays over the last 2 1/2 years, the delay this time was because the cops and D.A. were still not ready to go to trial. So they have put the case off until January 11, 2001. But because the State has had its way with this railroading, the attorneys for the Defense are filing a series of motions to dismiss the case for failure to prosecute, and also alleging that the speech at City Hall was protected by the First Amendment. The accusations are that this entire legal matter is a malicious prosecution, designed to keep Black Autonomy-COPWATCH from doing street organizing and to tie the activistsup in court.

But in addition the motion filed by legal counsel in criminal court on the day that the trial should have take place, there were various legal petitions filed by Lorenzo himself with the federal courts to block a criminal prosecution. One Petition, filed in Chattanooga federal court, seeks the removal of the case to federal court because the case cannot possibly be fairly heard in the state system and that the prosecution is racially motivated and politically tainted.

Another case, filed in federal court in Nashville, is a Petition for Writ of Habeas Corpus demanding a hearing to review the statute and hold the case there in federal court. Accompanying that Petition is an application for a stay of the state prosecution because of bias in the local state judiciary. All of these legal papers allege that the speech in City Hall was protected speech at a public , and that the prosecutions are designed to punish all the defendants for the contents of their speeches.

Although the trial court made no reference to this, clearly this colored their decision. Those legal motions, and the numerous letters, e-mails and faxes they have received from all over the world have frozen their zeal of railroading us to jail. Certainly the tourist boycott, which has been going on for over a year now has hit them in their pocketbooks. The Convention and Visitors Bureau now admit losing 10% of their normal tourist business this season. That millions of dollars, and over 100,000 tourists. Boycott Chattanooga, the coalition of groups and individuals, has been putting out thousands of brochures listing the persons killed in the city by police agencies, and placing them at rest stops throughout the Southeast. In addition, an internet campaign has recently started,with a website at: All of this has managed to give pause to the Chattanooga-Hamilton County officials, who in turn, have paused the trial. Make no mistake: the State of Chattanooga wants to see the Chattanooga 3 in jail, and more importantly, wants to preserve the state criminal statute on disruptions. They want it for the day there will be a mass upsurge by a Black and their anti-racist allies. They understand that their days are numbered. But we must continue to fight.

Write, fax or email a letter of protest to the district attorney demanding that charges against the Chattanooga 3 be dismissed.

Send letters to: Bill Cox, District Attorney: Bill Cox, Hamilton County District YM_M4I5S3S_24 Attorney General, City-County Courts Bldg., 3rd floor, 601 Market St. Chattanoga, TN. 37402 or email him at:, or fax him at: (423) 209-7401.

Racism and the Death Penalty

by Lorenzo Komboa Ervin

A few weeks ago, Janet Reno's Department of Justice released a study showing there was widespread racial discrimination in the federal death penalty process. Seems it showed that Blacks and racial minorities were being summarily designated as drug "kingpins" or mass murderers, and then sentenced to death. Well, this is just racial profiling that has been going on with the state death penalty process for years. And yet, those states which have used the death penalty as a tool for "protecting the public" can produce no statistics which show that they offer any deterrent against murder. So if deterrence is not the reason, why do they continue to kill?

Racism and government political power.

If you doubt this, then think about this: here in Michigan, and in the dozen other states that have chosen not to enact the death penalty since the Supreme Court ruled on the "constitutionality" of it, they have not had any higher homicide rates than states with the death penalty, according to the New York Times, which used a government report and a survey by the states. In fact, according to the report, capital punishment rates have been well below Texas, the leading death penalty state, over the last 20 years. In other words, some 48%-101% higher rates of murder in Texas, Georgia and Florida than Michigan and other non-death penalty states. So, it is an established fact that there is no death penalty deterrent effect, and that nobody is any safer from murder or other personal violence in this society from government executions.

But we are talking about racism and the death penalty here, and that is the greatest possible indictment of the sentence. When one looks at the death penalty, that is who gets it and in which cases the state seeks it, one can only wonder why any Blacks support it. If one looks at the death penalty, s/he finds a majority of the people on the death rows are Black, even in states like Pennsylvania where Blacks are less than 10% of the population. Also the overwhelming majority of cases where the government seeks death are in cases with white victims. Implicit within those statistics is the message that black life is inherently cheap, and white life is valued more than any other. That is racism and genocide.

Well, some Black folks might ask: who is to protect us from murderers in our midst. Well, not the police, courts or the death penalty. Like imprisoned death row activist, Mumia Abu Jamal, once said: "This system, its courts, its media, are all erected on the edifice of white supremacy, and all are sworn above all else, to protect white life, and this requires a disparagement of all non-white life...When blacks, even in their righteous grief, call for the state to kill, they are arming an enemy that will later turn on them."

The imposition of the death penalty is racially biased. Nearly 90% of persons executed were convicted of killing whites, even though African-Americans make up nearly half of all homicides in the United States. The death penalty, legal or illegal, has always been used against Blacks. Since 1890-1980, after over 5,000 documented lynchings, the fact is that 90% have been of Blacks and no one has been punished. That does not include the over 4,000 Blacks legally executed by various states since the death penalty was first enacted. Who can deny that the death penalty has fallen most heavily on Black people?

I do not seek the state to ever kill in my name, but I observe that very few whites, even Klan members, have been put to death for the murder of a black person, nor have any of the murderous cops who have shot Black people down in the streets or choked them to death in jail cells or police cruisers been sentenced to death, yet the death rows are full of Black and poor people all over this land. It's not just that this is "unfair" like the liberal lawyers and civil rights groups weakly, and we should just "reform" the system, the issue is that this is racism and class injustice, and that all executions should stop. That fact is that this system should never put anyone to death, this government is not morally qualified to take anyone's life, no matter how murderous they are.

We need a national moratorium against the death penalty. I believe that the only way we will get that is not lobbying, praying or deferring to politicians, but rather getting people in the streets in large numbers to obtain justice and fight for the lives of the condemned. So far, only one state has actually enacted a moratorium, and that was in Illinois after massive negative publicity about people railroaded to death row and then freed by a group of NorthWestern University journalism students. I believe that we can win moratoriums all over the USA if death penalty opponents will unite and do community based organizing. We must organize city-by-city, state-by-state, and bring many new people in the struggle.

A moratorium is not a panacea, but it is the first step toward elimination of the death penalty entirely in the United States. Winning a moratorium, I am convinced, would have the potential to throw the present political on its head, and would be a tremendous defeat for the right-wing conservative movement in this country, who have used fear, hysteria, hatred, religious bigotry, and racism to win passage of the death penalty in state after state. If the Left progressive forces could win this victory on a very unpopular issue, could we not press forward on other issues in the political arena, and create a new agenda and mass movement entirely? I think we would be in a position to re-phrase the whole question of crime and punishment, to educate millions, and to really call for an implement new solutions to the current repressive system.


Lorenzo Komboa Ervin


The trial and sentencing phase of the Chattanooga 3 case is over, and there was a partial victory when we were not sentenced to jail time, or so it would seem. But don't believe that they have done us any favors either. Things are not as simple as they seem, we could still go to jail on these charges and others. First, although there was no jail time rendered,as a result of the worldwide protest campaign, the state did order a fine and court costs for each defendant [around $500-1000]. We refuse to pay this, [in fact cannot pay it], and have already been told by letters from the Criminal Court Clerk to each of us, [or will be], that our cases have been re-submitted to the District Attorney and we will soon be hauled into court to face re-sentencing.

I do not really think they will be successful, I merely mention the fact that they might try to "take back" the sentences to pressure us to drop the appeals.

For Damon McGee he will still face the question of what effect the sentencing will have on his future ability to go to law school and then practice law. He has always wanted to be an activist "people's lawyer" in the Black community, the kind that existed in the 1960's in support of the civil rights and Black power movements. Although he has no criminal record, he is still being criminalized for protests against police brutality in Chattanooga. In his recent court appearance, he defiantly demanded the right to put into the court record that the reason for the protests and his arrest was because of the police murders of numerous persons in Chattanooga, and began to read the names of about 40 persons who have died in custody. He was prevented by the judge, but his written documentary testimony *was* placed in the record. The same happened to myself [Lorenzo], who complained about the denial of our right to speak before sentencing, and thus all of this was introduced, and each spoke of why we deserved no sentence at all. Mikail was especially effective at presenting his case before the judge, and this time we followed his lead. [More about this will be sent later, so we will not burden you with the details].

We still do not know if the Hamilton County District Attorney's office will bring conspiracy charges against us for "conspiring" with an undercover operative to bring a gun and ammunition into court during the trial. The government has an entire year before they have to indict us on these charges, which is a much more serious *felony*. We do not know at which stage this is still developing, whether just a local police investigation or before a grand jury, but it hangs there over our heads like the Sword of Damocles to lop off our heads. We need for you to send letters of protest to the District Attorney demanding that he drop his frame-up plans and arrest the one who actually brought the gun into the court himself.

We intend to appeal the case, but we need to obtain new counsel. It is clear that the court-appointed trial attorneys do not want us to appeal the convictions and further challenge the constitutionality of the statutes, so they must be replaced. We are working on that now, but it costs money, so we must conduct a fundraising drive.

Well, here is where we are now with all this:

(1). NEW TRIAL: The attorneys are supposed to be filing a motion for new trial within the next few days to get Judge Stern to rescind her previous ruling and the jury verdict. Then there should be a hearing on the matter, usually they are not granted, but sometimes who knows? Let her hear from you. Please send letters to Judge Rebecca Stern, via her Criminal Court Clerk, Gwen Tidwell, at:, urging her to grant a new trial and protesting the January criminal trial.

(2)E-MAIL PROTESTS: Please continue to write letters to Bill Cox (and his D.A.'s who prosecuted the case), expressing your outrage over the frame-up trial where our rights were systematically violated], and that he drop all further criminal charges., and also to:, and

(3). MONEY: We need funds to continue to fight this case, for printing of brochures, to hire an appeals specialist attorney to argue before the Criminal Court of Appeals and Supreme Court,to continue to post bond, and to pay these fines [if there is no other way!], So please send whatever money you can to: Account #7515108434, Old Kent Bank, 4705 W. Main street, Kalamazoo, MI. 49006.

As I always point out, this is not about the period of time we face, or our actual sentence, it is about the danger of a government statute that can punish activists with six months in prison and $500 fine for *each instance* of protest that they don't like, by merely labeling it a "disruption". Even the Ku Klux klan can have us arrested for a counter-demonstration. We said, and it has come to pass, that if they could do it to us and get away with it, then the other states would begin to use it as a tool to put down political protests, and lo and behold, throughout the year 2000, several hundred activists have been charged with such offenses as a result of protests at the Democratic and Republican national political conventions, and other protests all over the USA. The arrests for *illegal assembly* are supposedly in violation of the national constitution, but like all governments do, are used in a pinch to silence political critics. These are *thought control* crimes

We need your help. Over the course of the last 30 months, many thousands have heard of our case, and sent letters on our behalf, now we need you to keep it up, and even to let others know about the case. For updated information, please contact:

Love and struggle, Lorenzo Komboa Ervin for the Chattanooga 3

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Emanzipation Humanum, version 9. 2000, criticism, suggestions as to form and content, dialogue, translation into other languages are all desired