The Tennessee House has approved a proposed constitutional amendment that would change the state constitution’s wording to allow for prisoners to work without it being considered slavery.
The proposed amendment passed, 81-2, on Tuesday and will be on the statewide ballot in November 2022.
Rep. Joe Towns, D-Memphis, said the bill language came directly from the Tennessee Department of Corrections and was intended to eliminate any confusion about whether work from prisoners, who are paid, could fall under the slavery ban.
The constitution currently reads “slavery as a punishment for crime,” while the new proposed language is “Slavery and involuntary servitude are forever prohibited. Nothing in this section shall prohibit an inmate from working when the inmate has been duly convicted of a crime.”
“Today is an historic day as this state has taken a definitive step forward in stripping all forms of slavery from the Tennessee State Constitution,” Towns said in a statement. “Some Tennesseans may be prisoners, but, by God, they will not be slaves.”
Two Republicans disagreed with the measure.
Rep. Susan Lynn, R-Mount Juliet, noted prisoners are paid even though Tennessee does not require them to be paid, and she said she was concerned the second sentence in the proposed language could lead to Tennessee getting sued related to prisoner work.
Rep. Chris Todd, R-Jackson, said he was fundamentally against changing the constitution, especially in this case.
“There’s no need to rewrite this,” Todd said.
The Tennessee Senate passed the amendment by the required two-thirds margin, 26-4, on March 13. It previously passed the General Assembly last year.
Amending Tennessee’s constitution requires two approvals by the state Legislature; once by simple majority and again by two-thirds majority after an election before it goes to the public for a vote during the next gubernatorial election.