It has been about one year since film director Ava DuVernay released the documentary “13th.”  This documentary is widely available on Netflix.  Today, as the Black Lives Matter movement continues to unfold and national politics have veered towards a criminal justice system that yet again relies heavily on mass incarceration, 13th continues to provide useful context for conversations about race and criminal justice.  At Carolina Justice Policy Center, our intern Molly Riesenberger recently watched 13th to share what she learned with our readers:

“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” – Thirteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution

According to University of Connecticut professor Jelani Cobb, the drafters of the Constitution left “a loophole that was immediately exploited” in the 13th Amendment. Ava DuVernay’s documentary, 13th, connects this ambiguous clause to mass incarceration in America. The amendment abolished slavery, but the clause turned incarceration into the modern-day slavery. Here are ten things I learned from DuVernay’s film:


  1. When slavery was abolished, the millions of people responsible for the economic productivity in the south were freed. The south was left with the question: how do we rebuild? The answer was in the 13th African-Americans were arrested and imprisoned for minor crimes, then forced to provide the labor needed to rebuild the economy.


  1. In the land of the free, it’s ironic that we have the highest incarceration rates in the world. The documentary starts off with some striking statistics – the United States makes up 5% of the world’s population, but has 25% of the world’s prisoners.


  1. Let’s look at the numbers. In 1970, the prison population was 357,292. In 2014, the prison population was 2,306,200. Clearly, incarceration is not just a trend – it’s become a part of American culture.


  1. To break it down even further, African-American men have a significantly higher percentage of lifetime likelihood of imprisonment – one in 17 white males will do prison time, compared to only one in three African-American males.


  1. Following the civil war and the turn of the twentieth century, the film, ‘Birth of a Nation’ portrayed the African-American male as violent, animal-like, and evil. The film is widely known for being a catalyst to the rebirth of the Ku Klux Klan.


  1. The film examines the effect of the various presidencies on criminalization. It starts with Nixon’s southern strategy – he recruits southern, poor, working-class whites into the Republican fold and criminalizes Blacks. The strategy can be summarized by this quote by Lee Atwater, “…you’re talking about cutting taxes and all of these things you’re talking about are totally economic things, and the by-product of them is Blacks get hurt worse than whites.”


  1. Nixon was the first to coin the term “war on drugs,” but Reagan was the first to turn the term into a literal war. In the Reagan era, the war on drugs became a part of our modern culture, andBblack people became overrepresented in the news as criminals. The Nixon and Reagan administrations are responsible for the cycle of criminalizing African-Americans suffering from drug addictions, rather than increasing resources for treatment or rehabilitation.


  1. The 1994 Federal Crime Bill, created under Bill Clinton, deployed the latest technology and tactics to make communities safer. It basically led to the massive expansion of the prison system – it increased state funding for prisons, put 100,000 police officers on the street, and contributed to the exploding prison population. Clinton now realizes that this bill led to hyper-incarceration and was a mistake.


  1. One of the things that the documentary explains is ALEC, or the American Legislative Exchange Council. This private club is made up of people who are both politicians and members of corporations. The council writes laws for the Republican Party, including Florida’s “Stand your Ground” law. They also are responsible for SB 1070, which gave the police the right to stop anyone they thought to be an immigrant. This kept CCA prisons overflowing with immigrant detainees. Oh, and – CCA is one of the corporations that helped ALEC write the immigration law.


  1. Not everyone goes to trial. If every single person had a trial, the entire system would shut down. It often comes down to: you can take this plea deal and go to jail for three years, or you can go to trial and go to jail for 30 years if you lose. As a result, 97% of people do not go to trial and instead take a plea bargain.



This film made me feel like we have regressed as a society: why are we accepting a modern form of slavery? How do we break the cycle of mass incarceration?