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Vagrancy Laws, Poll Taxes, Financialization and the School-to-Prison Pipeline in Mississippi

Stevenson School in Meridian, Mississippi.(Photo: Tom / Flickr)

Jim Crow continues to stalk Mississippi with an assortment of old black codes and a newer, corporate-inspired school-to-prison pipeline that so blatantly exploits the state’s African-American youth, the federal government has been compelled to intervene.

On October 25, 2012, the US Department of Justice (DOJ) filed a civil rights lawsuit alleging the City of Meridian, Mississippi has been running a “school-to-prison pipeline,” having students arrested and sent to a detention facility for minor infractions like: wearing the wrong color socks, flatulence, untucked shirts and going to the bathroom without permission.

After detention, students are then required to appear before a youth court, where they are denied legal counsel and rights of due process. According to an article in the Huffington Post:

Students are handcuffed and arrested in school and sent to a youth court and denied constitutional rights for minor infractions like talking back to teachers or violating dress codes. The lawsuit states they are then transported more than 80 miles to the Rankin County youth detention center, reports the Associated Press.

Most students are placed on probation where future school violations may be considered “probation violations” that must be served in jail at the Juvenile Detention Center.

Defendants in the lawsuit include Lauderdale County Youth Court judges and the State of Mississippi Division of Youth Services.

In August, the federal government gave Meridian 60 days to remedy the situation, but the city refused to cooperate, which resulted in the filing of the civil rights lawsuit. Nothing was done. The lawsuit follows another filed in 2009 by the Southern Poverty Law Center alleging the county Juvenile Detention Facility in Meridian mistreated children by cramming them into small dirty cells and spraying them with mace for misconduct, like talking too much.

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Not surprisingly, 86 percent of students in Meridian are African-American, as are almost all of those arrested in this scheme. Mississippi has a long and troubling history of using racist legislation and a racist criminal justice system against African-Americans. In fact, it is the poster child of the South in an age of moral crisis.

In March, a survey by the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights found that black students are more than 3 1/2 times as likely as white students to be suspended or expelled, and more than 70 percent of students arrested in school or handed over to law enforcement are black or Hispanic.

Black Codes, Vagrancy Laws and Literacy Tests

The school-to-prison pipeline may have its roots in the black codes, vagrancy laws and literacy tests enacted in Mississippi after the Civil War.

In 1865, following the Civil War, most southern states passed black codes that restricted the rights of newly-freed slaves, to deprive them of their liberty and to continue to allow these states to profit from their labor.

The following are excerpts from Mississippi’s Black Code:

Negroes must make annual contracts for their labor in writing; if they should run away from their tasks, they forfeited their wages for the year. Whenever it was required of them they must present licenses … citing their places of residence and authorizing them to work. Fugitives from labor were to be arrested and carried back to their employers…. It was made a misdemeanor, punishable with fine or imprisonment, to persuade a freedman to leave his employer, or to feed the runaway. Minors were to be apprenticed, if males until they were 21, if females until 18 years of age. Such corporal punishment as a father would administer to a child might be inflicted upon apprentices by their masters. Vagrants were to be fined heavily, and if they could not pay the sum, they were to be hired out to service until the claim was satisfied. Negroes might not carry knives or firearms unless they were licensed so to do. It was an offence (sic), to be punished by a fine of $50 and imprisonment for 30 days, to give or sell intoxicating liquors to a Negro. When Negroes could not pay the fines and costs after legal proceedings, they were to be hired at public outcry by the sheriff to the lowest bidder….

After the Civil War, vagrancy laws were used to establish a system of convict leasing in Mississippi. African-Americans were arrested, heavily fined and then hired out to private industry to pay off their fines, providing a lucrative source of revenue for states and counties.

Mississippi’s constitution, passed in 1890, also required a literacy test and payment of poll taxes retroactively to a person’s 21 birthday, to keep African-Americans from registering to vote. Whites were exempted. As late as 1964, only 6.7 percent of eligible African-Americans were registered to vote in Mississippi, as a result of literacy tests and poll taxes.

Like the black codes, vagrancy laws and literacy tests before it, Meridian’s school-to-prison pipeline appears to be anther swindle to disenfranchise and economically exploit African-Americans under the canopy of an insidious and virulent New Jim Crow.

The GEO Group

Incarceration of disposable youth is big business. Up until April 2012, the GEO Group, a for-profit prison operator, ran three state prisons in Mississippi, including the Walnut Grove Youth Correctional Facility, about an hour from Meridian.

In March 2012, GEO settled a lawsuit brought by the Southern Poverty Law Center over the conditions at the Walnut Grove facility.

US District Judge Carlton W. Reeves, in approving the settlement, stated the GEO Group “has allowed a cesspool of unconstitutional and inhuman acts and conditions to germinate.

A report by the DOJ found the state showed “deliberate indifference” in failing to protect youth from harm in seven major areas: sexual misconduct between guards and inmates; use of excessive force by guards; excessive use of chemical agents; poor use-of-force policies, reporting, training and investigations; youth-on-youth violence and sexual assault; and seriously inadequate medical and mental health care. Sexual misconduct, it said, “was among the worst that we have seen in any facility anywhere in the nation.”

After the settlement, GEO ceased operations in Mississippi and quietly left the state.

Wells Fargo

Not surprisingly, there is a Wall Street connection to this sordid tale of human rights abuses, constitutional violations and exploitation of African-American youth in the gulag of the New American Jim Crow. Wells Fargo bank is the second largest investor in GEO group. According to

At the end of 2011, Wells Fargo was the company’s second-largest investor, holding 4.3 million shares valued at more than $72 million. By March 2012, its stake had grown to more than 4.4 million shares worth $86.7 million.

Interestingly, the Portland Independent reported:

According to documents filed with the SEC by GEO Group, Wells Fargo has served in the following investment banking roles to GEO Group: underwriter, trustee, broker-dealer, documentation agent, joint book-running manager, initial purchaser, dealer manager, financial advisor on acquisitions, and exchange agent. Wells Fargo raises funds for GEO Group in the capital markets by selling both stock and bonds issued by GEO Group.

State Senator Videt Carmichael

GEO Group has been a contributor to numerous state and federal politicians, using government-obtained revenue to lobby politicians for additional favorable legislation.

GEO’s notorious and openly flagrant influence-peddling in Florida and Texas were reported by Dina Rasor in Truthout.

One notable Mississippi politician GEO Group has contributed to is Videt Carmichael, a Mississippi state senator from Meridian.

Carmichael deserves mention because he sits on both the education and corrections committees in the Mississippi Legislature, and is a former Meridian teacher and principal.

Carmichael is also not surprisingly a member of the ALEC education task force.

As a state senator from Meridian, a recipient of contributions from the GEO group, and member of the Mississippi education and corrections committees, Carmichael has been notably silent about the mistreatment of African-American youth at Meridian’s school- to-prison pipeline, Meridian’s youth detention center and the Walnut Grove Youth Correctional Facility. As of this writing, I have been unable to find any reference to his speaking out on any of those issues.


The treatment of children by the Meridian School System, Youth Court judges, the State of Mississippi Division of Youth Services, the Meridian Youth Detention Center, and the Walnut Grove Youth Correctional Facility represent human rights atrocities and abuses deliberately targeting African-Americans. They also are a symbol of the deplorable state of race relations in the post-racial society, and the subversion of youth in an age of irrationality and moral deprivation. As educator Henry Giroux has noted:

At the heart of this corporate-driven market rationality is an egocentric philosophy and the culture of cruelty that sell off public goods and services to the corporate and private sectors while simultaneously dismantling those public spheres, social protections and institutions serving the public good. [1]

This is part of a pattern of abuses directed against African- Americans in Mississippi spanning more than 200 years, which includes slavery, black codes, vagrancy laws and poll taxes. Mississippi’s refusal to cooperate with the federal government reveals the depth of its malice. This is the punishing state. The war on youth that has hobbled past generations promises to enslave future ones.

While the US Government should be commended for filing a civil rights law suit against such horrific practices, it seems awfully ironic that African-American youth are criminalized for wearing untucked shirts and the wrong color socks, while the perpetrators of human rights and constitutional abuses face civil charges only and not criminal ones. Furthermore, the financiers of the culture of cruelty that threaten our nation’s youth are left unrestrained, allowed to roam the planet spreading their carceral business plans wherever surplus populations languish.

The conduct of GEO Group and Wells Fargo is part of a long history of American businesses profiting from the exploitation of African-Americans, while demonizing and hobbling entire generations of people of color at the same time. These shocking levels of cruelty and inequality continue now well into the 21st century with more virulence, as supposedly reputable companies and Wall Street vulture capitalists target minorities and prey on them like parasites feeding from a host.

Yet another disturbing aspect of the role of the GEO group, Wells Fargo bank and the acts of violence lashed into the backs of African-American youth is found in the heartless chronicle of the increasing financialization and monetization of human suffering which includes not only the racist criminal injustice system and school-to-prison pipeline, but the entire plethora of economic bottom-feeders that control late-stage capitalism: for-profit colleges, pawn shops, pay-day lenders, check-cashing joints, usurious car title companies, debt purveyors, charter schools, charlatans and sub-prime mortgage lenders, to name just a rancid few.

As Marx so presciently noted, only after capitalism has been overcome “will human progress cease to resemble that hideous pagan idol, who would not drink the nectar but from the skulls of the slain.” [2]

As the founders of Monthly Review, economists Paul Baran and Paul Sweezy, wrote back in the early 1960s in what are now called the Missing Chapters of Monopoly Capital:

It may well be that the number of skulls per ounce of the nectar of progress is under advanced capitalism even larger than it was under capitalism in the ages of its greatest rapacity ().

Like vagrancy laws and poll taxes before it, the Mississippi school- to-prison pipeline is testimony to the fact that minorities are not impoverished because they are lazy or stupid – as white reactionaries have always led people to believe. Racism and impoverishment are due to institutional and structural barriers designed to inhibit upward mobility, expand the theater of political disenfranchisement, reset the clock hands to a former epoch of slavery, while enabling exploitation by profit-seeking businesses searching for greater and greater sources of financialized earnings in a neoliberal economic system sliding into the muck of a dystopian Digital Dark Age.


Giroux, Disposable Youth: Racialized Memories and the Culture of Cruelty, Routledge, 2012, page 1.

The Future Rights of British rule in India, Karl Marx and Freidrich Engles, Selected Works in two volumes, volume 1, Moscow, 1950, p.324

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