Yes, slavery is on the ballot in these states

More than 150 years after it was officially banned in the United States, slavery will be on the ballot in five states in November as a new abolitionist movement seeks to reshape prison labor.

Voters in Alabama, Louisiana, Oregon, Tennessee and Vermont will decide on state constitutional amendments banning slavery and involuntary servitude, in some cases except incarcerated labor. Proponents say the amendments are needed to eliminate outdated language from state constitutions and potentially transform the criminal justice system by making all prison labor voluntary.

Three states — Colorado, Nebraska and Utah — have approved similar ballot initiatives since 2018.

“It’s the crown jewel of criminal justice reform,” said Curtis Ray Davis II, who served 25 years for second-degree murder at the Louisiana State Penitentiary known as Angola. and campaigned for the amendment in Louisiana following his experiences of incarceration.

“Most people thought it was impossible to get the amendment on the ballot in Louisiana, but Louisiana and America shouldn’t be in the business of legalized slavery,” he said. he stated in an interview.

13e An amendment to the US Constitution, ratified in 1865, abolished slavery and involuntary servitude in the United States – except as a publication for a person convicted of a crime. The ‘exception clause’ loophole led to repressive 19th-century laws in the South, known as black codes, that allowed authorities to incarcerate black people for minor offenses, such as vagrancy , and then force them to work. The black codes were a precursor to the Jim Crow laws banned by the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

“We want to remove offensive language and protect citizens from slavery and involuntary servitude,” said Max Parthas, co-director of state operations for the nationwide Abolish Slavery Network and co-host of a weekly online radio show. , Abolition Today. a meeting.

Parthas and other supporters also want to remove the exception clause from 13e Amendment. They hope the stalled effort in Congress will gain momentum once states amend their constitutions.

About 20 state constitutions have exception clauses that allow slavery or involuntary servitude as punishment for a crime. Vermont prides itself on being the first in the country to outlaw slavery in 1777, but its constitution permits involuntary servitude under certain circumstances, such as payment of a debt, damage, fine, or other expenses.

History of the Stateline

More states are expanding the ballot to previously incarcerated people

There is debate over whether removing the exception clauses from the U.S. Constitution and state constitutions would be largely symbolic, or whether it could result in significant changes to the prison system. Proponents say the symbolism is important, given the shameful historical context, but also that banning involuntary servitude could be a stepping stone to improving pay and working conditions for incarcerated people.

So far, no state that passed the amendment has changed its prison labor rules, but lawsuits to impose changes are likely.

“The [state constitutional] the amendment is more than symbolic,” said Reverend Mark Hughes of Burlington, Vermont, executive director of Abolish Slavery Vermont and Justice for All Vermont, organizations that seek to end systemic racism in the state. “Vermont has allowed slavery longer than any other state – for 245 years. That means no constitution allowed slavery in any state before Vermont,” he said.

In 2018, Colorado became the first state since Rhode Island in 1842 to outright ban slavery and involuntary servitude. Two years after a confusingly-language ballot initiative failed, Coloradans voted 66% to 34% for an amendment saying, “There shall never be slavery or involuntary servitude in this state.”

Ballot initiatives also passed by wide margins elsewhere. In 2020, Amendment 1 was passed in Nebraska by 68% to 32% and Amendment C was passed in Utah by 80% to 20%. Since 2020, bills have been introduced to put slavery or involuntary servitude on ballots in states like California, Florida, Ohio, New Jersey, and Texas.

But after the amendment passed in Colorado, a lawsuit seeking higher wages for prison workers was dismissed. Another lawsuit, seeking an end to forced prison labor, is in state court. Inmates Richard Lilgerose and Harold Mortis in February sued Democratic Colorado Governor Jared Polis, the executive director of the Colorado Department of Corrections and the agency itself, arguing that the state continued to compel people in prison to work in conditions amounting to involuntary servitude.

Under current rules, able-bodied Colorado inmates must work in the kitchen, laundry, as janitors or at other jobs.

The state does not comment on pending litigation, but in court documents it said the lawsuit should be dismissed because Colorado does not require those incarcerated to work, but rather penalizes them for not doing so. Prisoners who refuse to work may lose the time they have earned from their sentence, be forced to spend up to 21 hours a day in their cells or face reductions in phone calls, visits and time for the meals.

If the incarcerated plaintiffs prevail in their class action lawsuit, their attorneys say, Colorado may have to revamp that system.

“The state should create incentives for people to work — like wages,” said David Seligman, executive director of Towards Justice, a Denver nonprofit law firm that advocates and litigates on issues. economic justice, in an interview. “That’s how it’s supposed to work in this country. The work must be voluntary.

To avoid lawsuits, some states have added compromise language suggesting that prison labor is still permitted. In Utah, Amendment C states that “neither slavery nor involuntary servitude shall exist” in the state, but adds that the provision “does not apply to the otherwise lawful administration of the system of criminal justice”.

In Tennessee, State Senator Raumesh Akbari, a Democrat, introduced Amendment 3 in 2019 as part of the national campaign to remove the Exception Clause from state constitutions.

“Someone from the organization brought it to me, and I thought it was a great idea,” she said in an interview. She later added a second sentence, so the proposed amendment now reads: “Slavery and involuntary servitude are forever prohibited. Nothing in this section prohibits an inmate from working when he has been duly convicted of a crime. »

“The Department of Corrections asked us to implement the exception. I don’t think it would have moved forward if we hadn’t agreed to do it,” she said. “There is a difference between working and being a slave. This will allow people in prison to work if they wish.

History of the Stateline

Many in prison can vote, but exercising this right is not easy

Kathy Chambers, who leads the Yes on 3 campaign to pass the amendment in Tennessee, said bipartisan support for the amendment is a result of the wording of the amendment.

“It could easily be a partisan issue, but it’s not,” she said in an interview. Former U.S. Senator Bob Corker, a Republican from Tennessee, is on the campaign advisory board. “The strategy here is bipartisan all the way.”

In Louisiana last year, Republican lawmakers killed a ballot question proposed by Democrats to remove the exception clause. In a second attempt this year, the Democratic sponsor agreed to compromise language requested by Republican lawmakers, and the Louisiana House and Senate passed it unanimously.

The Louisiana polling question reads, “Do you support an amendment to prohibit the use of involuntary servitude, except as it applies to the otherwise lawful administration of criminal justice?”

What practical effect the amendment would have in Louisiana is a matter of dispute.

“If this amendment passes, the incentive to incarcerate black people will no longer exist,” said former inmate Davis, who never earned more than 20 cents an hour working while incarcerated. After his release in 2016, he published a book of essays, “Slave State: Evidence of Apartheid in America,” which was made into a documentary, and founded Decarcerate Louisiana, a Baton-based criminal justice reform organization. Red.

He lobbied state lawmakers last spring, arguing that constitutional change is a moral and religious issue, and plans to visit all 64 parishes in the state before Nov. 8 to encourage voters to turn out.

But Louisiana State Rep. Alan Seabaugh, a Republican who opposed the measure in committee, said the effect would be “absolutely zero, whatever it is.” It’s basically just symbolic. That says what’s already on the books – albeit potentially worse.

The state constitution currently prohibits slavery and involuntary servitude, except in the latter case for the punishment of a crime. The new wording states that slavery and involuntary servitude are prohibited, but the provision “does not apply to the otherwise lawful administration of criminal justice.”

In other words, “the new amendment technically allows slavery,” Seabaugh said. “I don’t think anyone thought of it that way, but that’s what he’s saying.”

Asked to predict the practical effects of the amendments on state ballots this year, some supporters prefer not to speculate.

“We don’t want this bill to be confused with a labor bill,” said Parthas of the National Network for the Abolition of Slavery. “This is strictly about ending slavery. What comes next is to be seen.”

And Hughes, Vermont, said, “Who knows? what will be the effects. “I just want to abolish slavery.”

Comments are closed.