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‘Crown Jewel of Criminal Justice System’: Voters In Five States Will Address Legal Loophole That Still Allows Slavery

In November, voters in five states will decide whether to close a gap in their constitutions that allows forced captive labor.

The 13th Amendment banned slavery in 1865 except for instances of criminal punishment. On Nov. 8, citizens in Alabama, Louisiana, Oregon, Tennessee and Vermont will vote on ballot measures in their states to close the legal loophole.

According to June report by the ACLU, about 76 percent of incarcerated workers surveyed by the Bureau of Justice Statistics say they are forced to work or face additional punishment.

Voters cast their ballots at a polling station at the John P. Holt Brentwood Library on Election Day Nov. 6, 2018, in Brentwood, Tennessee. (Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images)

“After the Civil War, the former owners of enslaved people looked for ways to continue using forced labor,” wrote Shane Bauer, author of “American Prison: A Reporter’s Undercover Journey into the Business of Punishment.”

“With Southern economies devastated by the war, businessmen convinced states to lease them their prisoners,” he wrote. “Convicts dug levies, laid railroad tracks, picked cotton, and mined coal for private companies and planters. The system, known as convict leasing, was profitable not only for the lessees, but for the states themselves, which typically demanded a cut of the profits.”

About 800,000 of the 1.2 million people in America’s prisons are incarcerated workers. The prison workforce makes $11 billion a year for the U.S. economy. Tennessee once made 10 percent of its state budget from convict leasing, according to Bauer. About 20 states still have a clause that allows captive labor.

Rhode Island was the only state to remove the provision when it was written into the state constitution in 1842, reports show. Voters in Colorado, Utah and Nebraska approved ballot measures to remove the language in 2018, and New Jersey, California, Texas, Florida and Ohio are also considering closing the loophole.

Incarcerated workers in most states are paid cents per hour. However, according to the ACLU, about eight states, including Florida, Texas, Georgia, Alabama and Arkansas, do not pay incarcerated workers.

Louisiana’s ballot measure bans “the use of involuntary servitude except as it applies to the otherwise lawful administration of criminal justice.”

Louisiana state Rep. Alan Seabaugh, a Republican who opposed the measure, said the new amendment is symbolic and “technically allows slavery” in the state notorious for convict labor.

“This is the crown jewel of criminal justice reform,” said Curtis Ray Davis II, who served 25 years in the Louisiana State Penitentiary, which was once a cotton plantation. Prison cotton and other penal farms still produce millions of dollars of goods and products today.

“Most people believed it was impossible to get the amendment on the ballot in Louisiana, but Louisiana and America should not be in the business of legalized slavery,” Davis told Pew Charitable Trusts.

Alabama’s measure asks voters to decide whether to remove “all racist language” from their state constitution, taking it a step further.

U.S. House Rep. Nikema Williams of Georgia last month called on Congress to pass the 2021 Abolition Amendment co-sponsored by 172 other House members. U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley of Oregon has also backed the amendment in the Senate.

“Passing the Abolition Amendment now will bring the Constitution closer to its goal of freedom for all as we continue to form a more perfect union,” Williams said in a Sept. 16 statement.

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