When we think about the term “modern slavery” we usually think about issues from around the globe that fill the news headlines lately. Child labor in mines and agriculture in Africa, migrant construction workers in the lead up to the Qatar 2022 World Cup, or maybe crews working on shrimp boats and fishing boats across Asia. But modern slavery encompasses any work that robs an individual of a choice to continue, or even begin working. This includes not just forced labor, but other types of more hidden slavery, like debt bondage, forced marriage, and forced prison labor.
On paper, slavery was abolished in the United States in 1865 with the 13th Amendment to the Constitution. But one form of slavery remains legal and formally institutionalized, the practice of forced prison labor. The 13th Amendment abolished the practice of slavery in most contexts, but made an exception for incarcerated people. A recent report from American Civil Liberties Union titled Captive Labor: Exploitation of Incarcerated Workers found that there are over 1.2 million people incarcerated in state and federal prisons in the U.S., and roughly 2 in 3 of them are forced to work. That means modern slavery is legally happening in prisons across many states. Couple that with a criminal justice system that is widely documented to unfairly target Black and other minority communities, and a grim picture starts to emerge.
Legalized forced prison labor is often pointed to as an example of entrenched racism in the U.S criminal justice system. Many organizations like Freedom United and Worth Rises are currently running campaigns that highlight the bias and injustice of this form of modern slavery and aim to end the legal loophole that allows it to continue at the Federal level. HTS has a dedicated page where you can learn more about what prison labor looks like and the abuse suffered by those trapped in the system and forced to work.
This obvious form of legalized modern slavery largely persists due to the close relationship between prisons and industry, known as the prison industrial complex. This profit-driven relationship between the government, the private companies that build, manage, supply, and service prisons, and related groups (such as prison industry unions and lobbyists) is often regarded as one of the root causes of increased incarceration rates, especially of poor and minority groups, often for nonviolent crimes. The ACLU report states, while prison labor produces nearly $11 billion worth of goods and services each year, incarcerated workers in the U.S. earn on average between 13 cents and 52 cents per hour across the country. According to the report, any wages earned by workers are low, and in most cases the government takes up to 80 percent of the pay for room and board, court costs, restitution and other fees, including the construction and maintenance of prisons.
Due to stalling at the Federal level, ending this form of modern slavery rests for the moment in the hands of individual states. About 20 state constitutions still have exception clauses, or Punishment Clauses, that allow either slavery or involuntary servitude as punishment for crime. And this November five states have legislation on the ballot that would put us a step closer to addressing this ill and ending legal slavery in the U.S., regardless of federal action.
Alabama, Louisiana, Oregon, Tennessee, and Vermont all have measures on the slate that allow voters to decide on whether or not to remove the Punishment Clause from their state constitutions. Tennessee Representative Joe Towns Jr. stated “The constitution currently reads “slavery as a punishment for crime,” while the new proposed language is “Slavery and involuntary servitude are forever prohibited…some Tennesseans may be prisoners, but, by God, they will not be slaves.” A self described “modern day ex-slave” from Louisiana, Curtis Ray Davis II, had this to say about his time doing prison labor “I spent 25 years in slavery. It was traumatizing, it was painful, physically and mentally. I felt sub-human, demeaned, socially dead,” Davis is now the executive director of Decarcerate Louisiana, which advocates for prison reform. “I just don’t believe that Louisiana and the United States should be in the business of legalized slavery.”
The people of Vermont take pride in the fact that in 1777 they were the first state in the nation to ban slavery. However, Vermont’s constitution still allows involuntary servitude in certain circumstances, such as to pay a debt, damage, fine or other cost. In Oregon the measure would remove similar language from the Oregon Constitution that allows the use of slavery and involuntary servitude as criminal punishments. If it passes the amendment would prohibit slavery and involuntary servitude without exception.
In Alabama the amendment would alter the state prohibition on slavery to remove a clause allowing involuntary servitude “for the punishment of crime, of which the party shall have been duly convicted.” Up until 1928 this clause served as the legal basis for racism in Alabama’s convict-labor system, leading to the arrest of Black Alabamians and forcing them into difficult or even deadly work. This amendment is on the ballot along with two others, aiming to eliminate institutionalized racism in the state constitution and scrub this racist legacy from the state’s guiding document. “Our state constitution is reflective of who we are,” said State Rep. Merika Coleman. “Those racist provisions in that constitution, those outdated provisions — we hope that’s not who we are, and we definitely know we’re not a 1901 Alabama, and we need to reflect that in the document.”
Voting is always an important way to have your voice heard on issues that are important to you and help shape society today, as well as outline what our communities will look like in the future. If you live in one of these key five states and you care about ending legalized modern slavery in the U.S., please read more about the specific issue on the ballot in your state. The HTS Prison Labor page has many useful national and regional articles, or you can just google prison labor in your state. You can also add your name to the Freedom United campaign, Amend the 13th that asks states and U.S. Congress to abolish the Punishment Clause in state constitutions and amend the 13th Amendment at the Federal level.
Colorado, Utah, and Nebraska already voted in favor of removing the Punishment Clause from their state constitutions. If more states remove the Punishment Clause from their state constitutions, it will hopefully create a domino effect for other states to follow their lead. It will also increase the chances of the Abolition Amendment passing through Congress and finally ending legalized slavery in the U.S..
By Rebekah Enoch, Program Director at Human Trafficking Search