Yesterday, social activist Jeanette Jing shared a particularly troubling section of Hillary Clinton’s 1996 book, “It Takes a Village”* on Twitter—and it exploded. In the passage, (displayed below) Clinton describes her unease towards the practice of using prison labor at the Arkansas governor’s mansion. But her unease had absolutely nothing to do with the practice of forced prison labor itself or her role in supporting it, it only had to do with fear over how the inmates would behave.
Maher said "house n*" and Clinton used prison labor at her mansion for ten yrs bc it was "a longstanding tradition which kept down costs." pic.twitter.com/EXPrVRjJ7G
— Jeanette🌹Corbynista (@JeanetteJing) June 6, 2017
First, let’s cover some basics on prison labor:
The 13th Amendment abolished slavery and involuntary servitude “except as a punishment for crime” and as The Economist noted, prison labor is now a billion dollar industry. In the United States, all inmates who are physically able to work, are required to do so. Jobs within the prison: food preparation, maintenance, landscaping etc, typically pay between 0 – .40 cents per hour, while outside job programs through UNICOR pay a bit more, but very rarely exceed $1.15 per hour.
The prison labor business has become highly controversial in recent years as it exists in a space between legal employment and slavery—while certainly having more in common with the latter than the former. Despite some rehabilitative benefits associated with certain inmate work programs, there is no way to sidestep the overarching, exploitative nature of this system—it’s cheap, forced labor. Most of the capital generated goes right back into the prison system. There have been pushes recently for inmates to be paid minimum wage and last September prisoners organized a national work stoppage as “a call to action against slavery in America.” But little has changed. Massive corporations like McDonald’s, Wall Mart, Whole Foods, Bank of America, Pepsi, Nintendo and many others use prison labor.
When one compounds the insanely low wages for mandatory work with the racial disparities of our criminal justice system one begins to see the bigger picture here: it’s just dressed-up slavery.
Now, back to Hillary Clinton.
The reason why this passage is so nauseating to read is due to how blatantly disconnected and self-centered it is. These are the musings of a rich, powerful white woman who is distressed over the people maintaining her household: “I was apprehensive, but I agreed to abide by tradition until I had the chance to see for myself how the inmates behaved around me and my family.”
In the passage following the one above Clinton writes: “The longer and better I came to know them, the more convinced I became that their crimes were not the result of inferior IQs or an inability to apply moral reasoning. Although they had not finished high school, they seemed to have active and inquisitive minds. Some had whimsy as well as street smarts. They showed sound judgment in solving problems in their work, and they plainly knew the difference between right and wrong.” This sounds like scientific research on the behavior of alien life forms. It was as if she previously thought that everyone in jail was there because they were actual monsters, an entirely different brand of human being, a violent species unto itself. But then, after talking to them, it turned out they were human beings after all.
What is stunning here is that the morality of employing prisoners forced into labor never even factored into her thinking—it’s all about how scary these people were. Hillary Clinton practiced and taught criminal and constitutional law for years, and so she either never noticed the flaws in our justice system, or she ignored them. This is again evident in her support of President Bill Clinton’s 1994 crime bill, the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act. The bill strengthened the war on drugs, maintained the 1:100 cocaine-to-crack sentencing ratio, instituted the three-strikes law which destroyed black communities, lengthened sentences and further bolstered the already ballooning trend of mass incarceration.
Last year, both Hillary and Bill Clinton criticized aspects of the law, but this was only after being confronted directly about its disproportionate impact.
Then, of course, in 1996 there was the infamous super-predator comment.
“They are often the kinds of kids that are called super-predators. No conscience, no empathy, we can talk about why they ended up that way, but first, we have to bring them to heel.”
Again her language is dehumanizing: “bring them to heel.” She speaks as if they’re all rabid dogs.
Clinton wrote the passages in question over 20 years ago, and it seems as though she’s evolved in many ways, but that doesn’t excuse how obtuse and ethnocentric the whole thing is. The “abid[ing] by tradition” rationalization was often used by the Confederacy while arguing in favor of slavery. With Clinton, it seems more about ignorance than intention, but does the mechanism behind the behavior matter? From an external standpoint, I suppose it could, but to those who are impacted by laws and statements, it doesn’t at all.
Time does not excuse this.
Tradition does not excuse this.
Ignorance does not excuse this.
*Clinton won a Grammy for the audiobook of “It Takes a Village.”
Jesse Mechanic is the editor in chief of The Overgrown.