The United States imprisons a higher proportion of its population than any other country in the world. The notorious caveat in the Thirteenth Amendment, which abolishes slavery “except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted,” allows slavery, albeit in altered form, to persist into the present period. As part of this, there is an even lesser known aspect of the infamous US prison system: “prison gerrymandering.”
Legislative representation for an area is determined by population, and in 46 states, prisoners are counted as “residents” of the districts in which they are imprisoned, as opposed to using their home address. Furthermore, in 44 of those states, prisoners are not allowed to vote.
Prisons are often located in rural areas with low populations, while prisoners are disproportionately working class, poor, black, and Latino, often from urban areas. The result is that the prison system uses almost two million prisoners to transfer political power from poor communities to rural, typically more conservative districts, while simultaneously disenfranchising them.
In the context of the one-sided war being carried out by the policing apparatus against minorities and the poor, the effect of this is the systematic exclusion of the masses from politics. By artificially redistributing the population to boost the influence and predominance of reactionary politicians, this effectively continues the Constitution’s original intent of reserving democratic rights for white, male property owners.
Before the American Civil War, a significant proportion of the population in Southern states were slaves, and in states including South Carolina and Mississippi, slaves formed an absolute majority, yet were disenfranchised. Given this balance of forces, the institution of slavery was embedded in the US Constitution in the so-called “three-fifths compromise.” This established that representatives would be apportioned according to population, “which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three-fifths of all other Persons.” This compromise increased the political power of a relatively small group of rich, white planters in the South, augmenting their electoral strength based on the population of slaves, who were not allowed to vote.
Leon Trotsky wrote that “The history of a revolution is for us first of all a history of the forcible entrance of the masses into the realm of rulership over their own destiny.” The American Civil War and the early stages of Reconstruction were revolutionary in the fullest sense of the word, as millions of former slaves entered the stage of history, actively withheld their labor and sabotaged the Confederacy, enlisted en masse in military action against the slave power, and participated massively in postwar electoral life.
In the aftermath of the Civil War, the Fourteenth Amendment of 1868 repealed the three-fifths compromise, and stated that “representatives shall be apportioned . . . counting the whole number of persons in each State, excluding Indians not taxed.”
While the exclusion and terrorization of indigenous peoples by the expanding American state continued and accelerated in this period, the main result of the policies of Radical Reconstruction in the South was the unprecedented entry of black people into political office. This also led to an increase in the electoral representation of the Southern states based on their now-larger counted populations.
But in the years after the war, embittered groups of Confederate veterans formed paramilitary outfits such as the Ku Klux Klan and the White Leagues. These organizations ruthlessly terrorized former slaves and white Republicans, and eventually purged the at-that-time revolutionary Republican Party from the Southern states, returning black Americans to a state of disenfranchisement and in many cases de facto bondage. The white ruling class relied on these “bodies of armed men” to reassert their control over Southern society. In a certain sense, it can be said that this period presaged the rise of fascism in Europe decades later, when a revolutionary upsurge in the class struggle was suppressed by extra-governmental gangs of terrorists, leaned on by the capitalists and their state to maintain power.
Although the voting rights of black people had been effectively revoked, the constitutional increase in political allotment to these states was maintained. The result was that the revolutionary implications of Reconstruction were turned into their opposite, further entrenching the political influence of the white Southern ruling class.
President Ulysses S. Grant, who presided over the radical phase of Reconstruction and the initial defeat of the Ku Klux Klan, later reflected on the consequences of its ultimate failure: “In giving the South negro suffrage, we have given the old slave-holders forty votes in the electoral college. They keep those votes but disenfranchise the negroes. That is one of the greatest mistakes in the policy of reconstruction.”
The legacy of the betrayal of Reconstruction—spearheaded by the Democratic Party—remains with us to this day. Prison gerrymandering weakens the working class in general while imposing the most atrocious violence on some of the most oppressed layers of society. The united working class must fight to dismantle the prison-industrial complex, which can only be achieved through a successful socialist revolution.
The conditions are long overripe to replace the deformed veneer of bourgeois democracy, which merely papers over the reality of capitalist dictatorship, with a real workers’ democracy. This alone can guarantee, not only equality on paper, but equality in life for all.