As difficult as it is to believe, even 150 years after the end of the Civil War and the ratification of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution in 1865, slavery persists in the U.S. in its modern-day incarnation: prison labor.
Incarcerated people are often employed to produce goods—things such as lingerie, baseball caps, jeans, and park benches and picnic tables—which are then sold on consumer markets or as wholesale goods, but the labor is unpaid and often compulsory.
According to a report by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), nearly a quarter of all U.S. prisoners (around 800,000 people) have jobs while incarcerated. Jennifer Turner, the principal author of the report, says, “State governments and the prison system are extracting tremendous value from a captive and exploited workforce all while claiming they can’t afford to pay them a liveable wage.”
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According to Vera, “a minimum of $2 billion and as much as $14 billion a year in wages is stolen from incarcerated people for the enrichment of private companies, state-owned entities, and correctional agencies.”
In yesterday’s midterm elections, Americans in Alabama, Tennessee, Vermont, Oregon, and Louisiana voted on amendments to limit involuntary servitude in state jails and prisons. Louisiana voters were the sole holdouts, voting against Amendment 7 and essentially maintaining the status quo, VICE News reports. But… there’s a reason why.
ABC News reports that the question on the ballot read:
“Do you support an amendment to prohibit the use of involuntary servitude except as it applies to the otherwise lawful administration of criminal justice?”
But since the measure should have been a vote to remove the pro-slavery exception for criminal punishment, the wording was found to be confusing, and Louisiana State Representative Edmond Jordan, who drafted the measure, encouraged voters not to vote for it.
In a statement to WAFB, Jordan said, "The way that the ballot language is stated is confusing. And the way that it was drafted, it could lead to multiple different conclusions or opinions. Because of the ambiguity of how it was drafted, I’m asking that people vote against it, so that we can go and clean it up with the intent of bringing it back next year and making sure that the language is clear and unambiguous.”
Bianca Tylek, executive director of the criminal justice advocacy organization Worth Rises, told ABC News, "I believe Louisiana residents would have abolished slavery had the confusion not existed, in the same way their neighbors in Alabama and Tennessee did, with some clarifications.”
In Tennessee, an anti-slavery measure passed with 79.54% of the votes, according to Tennessee Secretary of State Tre Hargett's website.
CBS News reports there was bipartisan support for the measure. The “Vote Yes on 3" campaign was supported by Democratic Tennessee State Reps. Joe Townes and Republican Rep. Jeremy Faison.
"Words matter, and in the constitution, there is still a resemblance of slavery leftover,” Townes said. Faison added, "It's important that we do away with all thoughts of slavery in our constitution.”
One Republican stated his opposition to the issue early on.
During a meeting of the Tennessee General Assembly in 2021, according to CBS News, Republican State Senator Frank Niceley said, “I'm a non-lawyer, and most of my voters are non-lawyers, and I can't explain this amendment in words they understand. The Constitution is too sacred [...] to clutter up with a lot of stuff non-lawyers can't explain to other non-lawyers. So I guess I'll be voting ‘no’ on this."
In June 2021, Merkley and Georgia Rep. Nikema Williams reintroduced legislation to revise the 13th Amendment, which bans slavery and involuntary servitude but gives exceptions when in the form of criminal punishment.
Louisiana is at the center of the anti-slavery movement, as it has one of the most infamous forced labor prison systems in the nation.
As VICE News reports, Angola, nicknamed the "Alcatraz of the South," "The Angola Plantation," and "The Farm,” has its foundation in slavery, as it once operated as an 8,000-acre cotton plantation manned by enslaved people, and later grew to an 18,000-acre prison—the size of Manhattan.
Although the measures that passed in four states will not go into effect immediately, and there will likely be legal challenges to them, as the Associated Press noted, the wins were celebrated in the anti-slavery movement.
Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Mississippi, and Texas, inmates are paid nothing for their labor, Vera reports, while Colorado, Nebraska, Utah, and Rhode Island have all abolished it. Currently, more than 20 states have joined the movement to end the slavery of incarcerated people.
Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkley, a Democrat, told The Associated Press, “Voters in Oregon and other states have come together across party lines to say that this stain must be removed from state constitutions… Now, it is time for all Americans to come together and say that it must be struck from the U.S. Constitution. There should be no exceptions to a ban on slavery.”