A Comparison of New York State Laws and Regulations and Slave Codes

A number of years ago, long before Michelle Alexander’s “The New Jim Crow,” while doing research for an essay entitled “From the Plantation to the Penitentiary,” I came across some striking similarities between New York Laws and Slave Codes.

From the Correction Law, Section 170, subdivision (1), one reads:

“Contracts prohibited.  The commissioner of correction shall not, nor shall any other authority whatsoever, make any contract by which the labor or time of any prisoner in any state prison, reformatory, penitentiary or jail in this state, or the product or profit of his work, shall be contracted, let, farmed out, given or sold to any person, firm, association or corporation; except that the convicts in said penal institutions may work for, and the products of their labor may be disposed of to, the state or any political division therefor or for or to any public institution owned or managed and controlled by the state, or any political division thereof.”

Slave Code, from Louisiana:

“The slave is incapable of making any kind of contract, except those which relate to his own emancipation.”

Slave Code, from Alabama:

“No master, overseer, or other person having the charge of a slave, must permit such slave to hire himself to another person, or to hire his own time, or to go at large, unless in a corporate town, by consent of the authorities thereof, evidenced by an ordinance of the corporation.”

Slave Code, from South Carolina:

“No owner, master or mistress of any slave…shall permit or suffer any of his, or her or their slaves to go and work out of their respective houses or families, without a ticket in writing under pain of forfeiting the sum of current money, for every such offence.”

From New York Standards of Inmate Behavior, 105.11:

“Religious services, speeches or addresses by inmates other than those approved by the Superintendent or designee are prohibited.”

Art. I, Section 1022 (Alabama):

“Any slave who preaches, exhorts, or harangues any assembly of slaves, or of slaves and free persons of color, without a license to preach or exhort from some religious society of the neighborhood, and in the presences of five slave-holders, must — be punished.”

From New York Standards of Inmate Behavior, 105.10:

“Unauthorized Assembly or Activity.  The unauthorized assembly of inmates in groups is prohibited.  The size of the group is determined by local policy [generally five people].”

Art. I, Section 1020 (Alabama):

“Not more than five male slaves shall assemble together at any place off the plantation, or place to which they belong, with or without passes or permits to be there, unless attended by the master or overseer of such slave, or unless such slaves are attending the public worship of God, held by white persons.”

These similarities between New York State Laws and Regulations, which are on the books today, and Slave Codes, are indeed striking.  So for those who think that we do not live in the dark shadows of slavery…


About William Eric Waters, aka Easy Waters

Award-winning poet, playwright and writer. Author of three books of poetry, "Black Shadows and Through the White Looking Glass: Remembrance of Things Past and Present"; "Sometimes Blue Knights Wear Black Hats"; "The Black Feminine Mystique," and a novel, "Streets of Rage." All four books are available on Amazon.com.
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