Oct 21, 2022 - Politics & Policy

Where slavery is on the ballot this November

Inmates at the Limestone Correctional Center in Limestone, Alabama in August 1995. The prisoners were woken before dawn and under heavy armed guard were shackled to each other. After a light breakfast they headed out into the blistering heat where they worked at breaking rocks. Photo: Michael Brennan via Getty Images

This midterm elections, voters in five states will decide whether to remove from state constitutions language allowing slavery and involuntary servitude as criminal punishments.

The big picture: Over 150 years after the U.S. abolished slavery, nearly 20 state constitutions still allow forced labor as punishment for certain crimes.

Context: Across the U.S., incarcerated people often endure back-breaking labor only to be paid pennies per hour — or none at all.

  • They aren't afforded the same kinds of protections, such as minimum wage and benefits, and in many cases lose visitation privileges or face solitary confinement if they do not work, even in cases of injury or illness. West Coast states, for example, have long relied on incarcerated people to fight wildfires.
  • Colorado became the first to remove the language by ballot measure in 2018. Nebraska and Utah did the same two years later.
  • This year, voters in Alabama, Louisiana, Oregon, Tennessee and Vermont will decide whether to close the loopholes in their constitutions.

Worth noting: The ballot initiatives are part of a national push to strike down the exception clause in the 13th Amendment that allows slavery and involuntary servitude as punishment for crime.

  • Advocates say the exception has enabled the exploitation of people convicted of felonies — one that disproportionately impacts Black people, who are imprisoned at nearly five times the rate of white people, according to a study by research and advocacy center The Sentencing Project.
  • The loophole also served as the foundation for states to pass Black Codes and Jim Crow laws, which criminalized everyday activities to make it easier to imprison them.

What they're saying: "At the time when our Founding Fathers prescribed that all men were created equal, over half a million Black Americans remained enslaved," Savannah Eldridge, lead organizer at the Abolish Slavery National Network, said at a press conference about the campaign to end the exception.

  • "We are here, nearly 157 years later, to close a revolving door that freed some and returned most to the very same conditions from which they fled."
  • "It is written in our nation's Constitution ... that we disapprove of slavery but we have refused and continue to refuse to disallow it," Eldridge noted.
  • "It looks like working in the heat of the day in triple-digit temperatures in Texas prisons with no air conditioning, or the rationing of food and other basic necessities in response to peaceful demonstrations as in Alabama."

"It’s a moral issue," Bianca Tylek, founder of the nonprofit Worth Rises working to dismantle the prison industry, said in an interview with Capital B.

  • "Imagine the sentence, 'Slavery is OK, when …' If it doesn’t make you feel comfortable to finish that sentence, then you have to agree that we need to get rid of any vestige of slavery in our constitution."

Don't forget: The U.S. has the highest incarceration rate in the world today, with almost 2 million people imprisoned across federal, state, local and tribal systems.

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