Modern slavery: Where is justice in the U.S.?
First Voice

Editor's note: Democracy's Broken Promises is a five-part animation series that delves into the myths of American democracy. Through fictionalized narratives based on real events, this series explores the true extent of the power American voters have to transform their society. The second episode is about forced labor in American prisons.

My name is Lamar Jackson. I was a drug dealer. In 1994, a man was shot dead on my porch by two men in masks.

Police assumed I did it. I was sent to prison for life.

In prison, I had to work, but I didn't get paid a penny.

I worked the same crops on the same fields as slaves did 158 years ago. The guards sat on horses, and told us what to do. We were punished if we were too slow. Most of the prisoners were Black. It was like nothing had changed.

A group of lawyers believed I was innocent. They took on my case for free. They found out the police paid a man $4,000 to say he saw me pull the trigger.

Another man confessed to the killing, and said I did not do it.

Even so, the attorney general did not want to let me go free. He refused to listen to the case. He wanted to appear tough on crime. After all, I was Black, and a former drug dealer.

In the end, I was released. But I'm 50 years old now.

My girlfriend left me a year after I was put behind bars. I have a son and grandson that don't know me. I've lost my family, and the best years of my life.

In the U.S., a bit more than 1 in 10 people are Black. But Black people make up 38 percent of incarcerated people. More than half of people found to be wrongfully convicted are Black.

The American Civil Liberties Union says 800,000 prisoners are working in prisons. And the state makes billions of dollars each year from our labor.

So do corporations. CoreCivic, the second-largest community corrections company in America, earned $1.85 billion in 2022 alone. They use that money to lobby politicians to support the current system.

Everyone says we have democracy and freedom. But I spent most of my life working as a slave – based on a wrongful conviction caused by biased cops.

If you are poor, you can't get a fair trial. I consider myself lucky I was ever released.

Lamar Jackson is a composite character based on real cases, representing challenges faced by more than 2 million incarcerated Americans.

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