NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) – More than 150 years after slaves were freed in the U.S., voters in five states will soon decide whether to close loopholes that led to the spread of a different form of slavery — the forced labor of people convicted of certain crimes.
Neither proposal would force immediate changes within the state’s prisons, though they could lead to legal challenges over how they use prison labor, a lasting imprint of slavery’s legacy on the entire United States.
The effort is part of a national effort to amend the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which banned enslavement or involuntary servitude except as a form of criminal punishment. That exception has long allowed the exploitation of labor by convicted felons.
“The idea that you could ever finish the sentence ‘slavery is okay when . . .’ has to tear your soul out, and I think that’s what makes this fight a fight that ignores political lines and brings us together, because it’s so clear,” she said. is Bianca Tylek, executive director of Worth Rises, a criminal justice advocacy group pushing to remove the convict labor clause from the amendment.
Nearly 20 states have constitutions that include language allowing slavery and involuntary servitude as criminal penalties. In 2018, Colorado was the first to remove the language from its charter by ballot, followed by Nebraska and Utah two years later.
This November, versions of the question go before voters in Alabama, Louisiana, Oregon, Tennessee and Vermont.
Sen. Raumesh Akbari, D-Memphis, was shocked when a fellow lawmaker told her about the slavery exception in the Tennessee Constitution and immediately began working to replace the language.
“When I found out there was this exception, I thought, ‘We have to fix this and we have to fix it now,'” she said. “Our constitution should reflect the values and beliefs of our country.”
Constitutions require long and technically tricky steps before they can be adapted. Akbari first proposed the changes in 2019; The GOP-dominated General Assembly then had to pass the changes by a majority vote in one two-year legislative period and then pass them again with at least two-thirds approval in the next. The amendment could then go to a vote in the year of the next gubernatorial election.
Akbari also had to work with the state Department of Corrections to ensure that inmate labor would not be prohibited under her proposal.
Proposed language going before Tennessee voters more clearly distinguishes the two: “Slavery and involuntary servitude are forever prohibited. Nothing in this section shall prohibit a prisoner from working when the prisoner has been duly convicted of a felony.”
“We understand that those who are in prison cannot be forced to work without pay, but we should not create a situation where they will not be able to work at all,” Akbari said.
Similar concerns about the financial impact of prison labor led California’s Democratic-led legislature to reject an amendment to eliminate slavery as a possible punishment for the crime after Gov. Gavin Newsom’s administration predicted it could require the state to pay billions of dollars in minimum wages to prison inmates. .
Oversight of prison labor has existed for decades, but the 13th Amendment loophole in particular encouraged former Confederate states after the Civil War to devise new ways to maintain the dynamics of slavery. They used restrictive measures, known as “Black Codes” because they almost always targeted black people, to criminalize benign interactions like talking too loudly or not yielding on the sidewalk. Those targeted would end up in detention for minor acts, thereby enslaving them again.
Fast forward to today: Many inmates earn pennies on the dollar, which is not expected to change if the proposals succeed. Prisoners who refuse to work can be denied phone calls or family visits, sentenced to solitary confinement and even parole.
Alabama is asking voters to remove all racist language from its constitution and to remove and replace a section on convict labor similar to what Tennessee had in its constitution.
Vermont often boasts that it was the first state in the country to outlaw slavery in 1777, but its constitution still allows for involuntary servitude in a few circumstances. His proposed amendment would replace the current exception clause with language stating that “slavery and involuntary servitude are forever prohibited in this State.”
Oregon’s proposed amendment repeals the exception clause and adds wording that allows a court or parole agency to order an alternative to prison as part of a sentence.
Louisiana is the only state so far where the proposed amendment has drawn organized opposition, due to concerns that the replacement language could make matters worse. Even one of his original sponsors has changed his mind — Democratic Rep. Edmond Jordan told The Times-Picayune/The New Orleans Advocate last week that he is urging voters to reject him.
The nonprofit Council for a Better Louisiana warned that the wording could technically allow for re-enslavement, as well as the continuation of involuntary servitude.
The Louisiana Constitution now states, “Slavery and involuntary servitude are prohibited, except otherwise as punishment for crime.” The amendment would change that to read: “Slavery and involuntary servitude are prohibited, (but this) shall not apply to the otherwise lawful administration of criminal justice.”
“This amendment is an example of why it is so important to get the language right when presenting constitutional amendments to voters,” the nonprofit group said in a statement urging voters to vote “No” and lawmakers to try again, pointing to the language of the Tennessee ballot as a possible template.
Supporters of the amendment say such criticism is part of a campaign to keep the exemption clauses in place.
“If this doesn’t pass, it will be used as a weapon against us,” said Max Parthas, state director of operations for the National Network to Abolish Slavery.
The question stands as a reminder of how slavery continues to trouble Americans, and Parthas says that’s reason enough to vote yes.
“We have never seen a single day in the United States where slavery was not legal,” he said. “We want to see what it looks like and I think it’s worth it.”