Eradication of Slavery


Maddie McAllister

Editor-in-Chief, Ava Cherry, poses for the camera.

Colorado, Utah, and Nebraska are the only states with modified amendments that unconditionally ban slavery. These alterations have yet to change the landscape of prison labor.

The 13th amendment, ratified in 1865 outlawed slavery and all forms of involuntary servitude except in the case of punishment for a crime. More than 150 years later, slave labor continues to prop up the American economy. Currently, voters in five states, Alabama, Louisiana, Oregon, Tennessee, and Vermont have the power to add provisions to state constitutions to close the loophole in the 13th amendment that permits involuntary servitude for incarcerated persons.

As stated in the thirteenth amendment,

“Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”

On average, prisoners in the United states make 13 to 52 cents an hour for labor despite producing 11 billion dollars worth of goods and services annually. This does not account for the money deducted for taxes, court costs, and expenses related to room and board, which amount to up to 80% of the convict’s earnings. Additionally, convicts in seven states receive no compensation whatsoever.

The reach of human rights abuses goes far beyond unpaid labor. More often than not, prisoners do not undergo safety and training programs. Additionally, prisoners do not benefit from the protections of health and safety standards, minimum wage, and unionization that all other American workers do. 76% of incarcerated people surveyed by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) report facing punishment for refusal to work. Penalties range from time spent in solitary confinement and the expunction of the possibility for sentence reductions on account of good behavior.

The impact of ballot measures differs from state to state. These laws will not immediately change protocols. They will, however, allow lawyers to advocate for higher pay and human rights for incarcerated persons. Additionally, there is no clarification as to the minimum amount of monetary compensation required for labor not to be considered involuntary servitude in prisons.

In four states, Alabama, Tennessee, Oregon, and Vermont, voters approved alterations to their respective constitutions, eliminating language that allows for exceptions to the prohibition of slavery. In Louisiana, however, voters rejected the amendment 7 proposition. State Representative Edmond Jordan, the amendment’s initial sponsor, advocated that voters should dismiss the proposal on account of confusing language that could allow for further exceptions to the prohibition of voluntary servitude. Legislators plan on reintroducing similar, more explicit amendments in Louisiana.

In 1777, Vermont became the first state to abolish slavery, excluding in the case of “the payment of debts, damages, costs, or the like.” The newly approved amendment provides a clear assertion of the prohibition of all forms of indentured servitude. In Oregon, Measure 112 passed, marking the removal of slavery exception language from the state constitution. Nearly 80% of voters in Tennessee voted to repeal Section 33 of Article 1 and replace it with, “slavery and involuntary servitude are forever prohibited.” Similarly, in Alabama, where prisoners’ labor is completely unpaid, voters approved the removal of clauses that permit slavery in the case of punishment.