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13th [Movie Review]

The 13th Amendment to The United States Constitution abolished slavery and involuntary servitude. It created a protected right for citizens to be free from bondage. But, a loophole allows suppression of this right for criminals who are being punished following a conviction. This 14-word phrase charted a path for the American prison-industrial complex. 13th, a documentary by filmmaker Ava DuVernay, explores the history of institutional racism through the lens of the 13th Amendment.

“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.” (U.S. Const. amend. XIII)

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Other outlets have already covered much of this information but 13th does a great job of tying it all together. A part of that tidiness is due to the two timelines that run throughout 13th. One, a detailed timeline of Black people and the machinations of the justice system and the other the prison population. Discussing the political and judicial initiatives that created the prison industrial complex was interesting. But, seeing how the prison population grew over the decades as a result was eye-opening and sobering. The historical timeline juxtaposed against the prison population timeline helped to put things in perspective and was a great touch.

An area in which I learned a lot from the documentary was its coverage of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and Corrections Corporations of America (CCA). ALEC is a conservative organization which consists of corporations and politicians that create and propose new legislation. The majority of bills aim to boost revenue or limit government regulations for member organizations. In return, politicians receive campaign contributions. CCA is the oldest and largest for-profit private prison corporation in America.

CCA was a member of ALEC and proposed many of the problematic bills that contributed to the prison pipeline. A split between ALEC and the CCA has given way to ALEC “realizing the error of its ways” and now supporting reform of the prison and justice systems. They’re now moving towards in-home/community confinement instead of prisons. This will enable them to profit from the parole, probation, and monitoring device services they provide.

Seeing Newt Gingrich speak about the failings and biases of the justice system was also surprising. I don’t know if I’ve become more aware since watching the documentary or it’s a coincidence but both sides of the aisle are now calling for “prison reform.” (Or at least they were leading up to the recent election). And that gives me serious pause.

13th makes a good point that past promises of reform haven’t resulted in long-lasting change but rather more varied forms of oppression. There’s a sense of relief when Black people make progress (ex: Reconstruction, Civil Rights Movement, etc). But then, new reforms create a new set of problems for the Black community (ex: Jim Crow, benign neglect, War on Crime, War on Drugs, etc).

One of the most interesting parts of 13th is its explanation of the government’s multifaceted attack on the Black community. The justice system vilified and infiltrated the Civil Rights and Black Power Movements. It removed the most visible leaders of organizations that spearheaded the various Movements. This led to internal instability and the eventual collapse of organized community activism. Black communities became vulnerable to the oncoming armada of drugs and mass incarceration.

Politicians used the Civil Rights Movement and other acts of resistance as scapegoats for America’s problems. Poverty, drug addiction, the Vietnam War, etc were pressing issues. But having no real solutions, politicians diverted the public’s attention by appealing to their fears. Over the years politicians had become more media savvy. They could no longer use blatant racism to appeal to poor Southern White people. Instead, they relied on veiled language and economic policies to siphon economic and social resources from Black communities. (Sound familiar?)

Penal systems exist to prosecute and punish criminals, which is reasonable and necessary. Yet, this isn’t the case in a capitalist society founded on the enslavement and subjugation of a people. There is great potential for immorality and corruption due to the possibility of immense financial gain. When the society allowed prisons to become a business it opened the floodgates for unscrupulous people to take advantage.

Prisons are no longer places for punishment and rehabilitation, they might have never been. Instead, they are sources of lucrative contracts and dependable revenue streams. There is a conflict of interest when an organization both manages and profits from incarceration. It creates a greater incentive to incarcerate people on a massive scale than to deter crime.


13th is a masterful exploration of America’s history of consuming Black bodies for economic gain. It identifies the people, policies, and organizations that have shaped institutional racism. And is adept at connecting how institutional racism led to mass incarceration. I recommend 13th if you’re interested in economics, social justice, prison reform, or the history of institutional racism.

A flaw in the documentary is that it focuses on the impact of incarceration on Black men with little mention of Black women or children. The raw incarceration numbers for the two genders differ but the over-representation of Black women in state and federal prison is worth exploring. Further examination of suspension, expulsion and detention rates for Black children would have provided greater insight into the prison pipeline.

13th is available for streaming on Netflix.

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