Abolish prison slavery in the U.S. - FreedomUnited.org

Amend the 13th : Outlaw slavery in the United States

Amend the 13th

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It is 2024 and slavery and involuntary servitude is still legal in the United States. Watch a discussion on this topic here.

Passed by Congress on January 31, 1865, the 13th Amendment of the US Constitution aimed to abolish slavery, but in reality, the amendment allowed slavery to remain legal.

Section I of the amendment reads:  

“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.”1

Prison slavery is never the answer

The “Exception Clause”, also known as the Punishment Clause, made it possible for slavery to be used as a method of punishment, allowing the government to legally subject people incarcerated across the United States to forced labor. But what is legal is not what is just. 

Incarcerated persons exposed to prison slavery or forced prison labor are coerced into working through the loss of privileges, visitations, good time earnings, commissary access or the threat of solitary confinement and even being tasered according to one lawsuit.2

Congress has the chance to end legal slavery

That is why we are asking states and US Congress to abolish the Punishment Clause in state constitutions and amend the 13th Amendment. 

The Punishment Clause is not just a glaring fault in the US Constitution — several state constitutions contain identical language. Beginning with Colorado, Utah, and Nebraska, many states are taking aim at striking the Punishment Clause from their state constitutions.  

In 2022, Vermont, Alabama, Tennessee and Oregon, through successful Midterm election referenda, have introduced amendments to either remove the punishment clause from their state constitutions or add language to explicitly outlaw slavery or involuntary servitude as punishment for a crime.3

If more states remove the Punishment Clause from their state constitutions, this will create a domino effect for other states to follow their lead, as well as increase the chances of the Abolition Amendment — set to be reintroduced this year — passing through the US Congress 

The forced labor indicators

Forced labor in prisons is often built into “rehabilitation” or “educational” programs. Many who are incarcerated report being threatened with solitary confinement or longer sentences if they refuse to work. On top of this, incarcerated people are often paid nothing at all for their work or mere pennies, leaving them with almost no savings to help them re-enter society upon release. 

In 2017, Prison Policy Initiative reported incarcerated people appear to be paid less than they were in 2001. The report stated “What changed? At least seven states appear to have lowered their maximum wages, and South Carolina no longer pays wages for most regular prison jobs – assignments that paid up to $4.80 per day in 2001. With a few rare exceptions, regular prison jobs are still unpaid in Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, and Texas.”4

According to the International Labour Organization, under the 1930 Forced Labour Convention No. 29, forced labor is work undertaken involuntarily under threat of menace or penalty. This also applies to prison labor, meaning wages must be comparable to those of free workers with similar skills who are not incarcerated. 5

The Punishment Clause has been a blight on the US for over 100 years, creating an economic incentive for increasing incarceration and exploiting incarcerated people as a source of cheap labor.6 As Senator Merkley, sponsor of the Abolition Amendment, explains, the Punishment Clause created a financial incentive for mass incarceration throughout history, targeting communities of color in particular:

Following the ratification of the 13th Amendment, including the Punishment Clause, in 1865, Southern jurisdictions arrested Black Americans in large numbers for minor crimes, like loitering or vagrancy, codified in new ‘Black Codes,’ which were only applied to Black Americans. The Punishment Clause was then used by sheriffs to lease out imprisoned individuals to work landowners’ fields, which in some cases included the very same plantations where they had been enslaved.  The practice grew in prevalence and scope to the point that, by 1898, 73% of Alabama’s state revenue came from renting out the forced labor of Black Americans. 

The practice grew in prevalence and scope to the point that, by 1898, 73% of Alabama’s state revenue came from renting out the forced labor of Black Americans. The Punishment Clause’s facilitating and incentivizing of minor crime convictions continued to drive the overincarceration of  Black  Americans throughout the  Jim Crow era.7

Join the movement

The United States must reckon with the injustices faced by incarcerated people borne out the Punishment Clause. At the same time, we recognize that this is a first step in tackling the myriad of other state and federal laws excluding incarcerated people from minimum wage and labor rights protection, as well as the need for the public and private sector to divest from facilities that subject incarcerated people to severe labor exploitation.8

Join us in demanding all states and the federal government to explicitly outlaw slavery and involuntary servitude as punishment for a crime in the US and state constitutions — put an end to the Punishment Clause in the United States! You can write directly to your legislature urging them to support the Abolishment Amendment here!

  • February 2, 2024: A new cost-benefit analysis finds that amending the 13th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution would result in economic benefits for society at large, busting myths by authorities that states “cannot afford” to end prison slavery.

  • January 29, 2024: New research by The Associated Press unravels intricate ties connecting some of the world’s largest food companies to U.S. forced prison labor

  • November 8, 2023: A group of teens from Kentucky are trying to change their state constitution to end prison slavery.

  • October 4, 2023: In New Jersey, with support from Freedom United, the Essex County Board of County Commissioners passed a resolution calling upon the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives to pass a joint resolution removing the Punishment Clause from the U.S. Constitution.

  • Kevin Bales

    Kevin Bales is the Professor of Contemporary Slavery at the University of Nottingham and Lead Author of the WalkFree Global Slavery Index. He is the Co-Founder of the NGO Free the Slaves. His book Disposable People: New Slavery in the Global Economy published in 1999, was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize, and was named by the Association of British Universities as one of “100 World-Changing Discoveries”. The documentary based on his work, which he co-wrote, Slavery: A Global Investigation, won the Peabody Award for 2000 and two Emmy Awards in 2002. He has advised the US, British, Irish, Norwegian, and Nepali governments as well as the European Parliament on trafficking and slavery policy.

  • Luis C.deBaca

    Luis C.deBaca is a lawyer and diplomat who has previously served as the U.S. Ambassador-at-Large to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, coordinating U.S. government activities in the global fight against contemporary forms of slavery.  One of the United States’ most decorated federal prosecutors, C.deBaca updated the post-Civil War statutes and the 13th Amendment to develop the “victim centered approach” to modern slavery, which has become the global standard for combating human trafficking.

  • E. Benjamin Skinner

    E. Benjamin Skinner is the Founder and Principal of Transparentem. Previously, he was Senior Fellow at the Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism of Brandeis University. His first book, A Crime So Monstrous: Face-to-Face with Modern-Day Slavery (Free Press; 2008), was awarded the 2009 Dayton Literary Peace Prize for nonfiction and was a finalist for The Ryszard Kapuscinski International Award for literary reportage in 2011.

  • Diane Orentlicher

    Diane Orentlicher is Professor of International Law at American University. She has lectured and published widely on issues of transitional justice, international criminal law, and has testified before the United States Congress on a range of issues relating to both domestic human rights laws and U.S. foreign policy. Previous positions include Deputy for War Crimes Issues in the U.S. Department of State; United Nations Independent Expert on Combating Impunity and Special Advisor to the High Commissioner on National Minorities of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe.

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Elizabeth S. Lowell
Elizabeth S. Lowell
2 years ago

The “Punishment Clause” in our Constitution is a loophole big enough to let a Tyrannosaurus Rex through. That loophole must be closed.

Dara
Dara
2 years ago
Reply to  Gerry

You do realize if they were paid a fair wage, they could then pay into taxes and support the economy as a whole, as well as helping their families who are NOT incarcerated. Also, do you believe that because someone makes a mistake, they should become legal slaves? Working for a living is NOT having a holiday on our taxes. NOT paying them is sucking away the American tax dollars. We are footing the bills, while corporations are making trillions of dollars annually. Basic mathematics, it’s not that complicated. They also pay more for canteen than what we do on… Read more »

Ian Gemmell
Ian Gemmell
2 years ago
Reply to  Gerry

I have no difficulty with prisoners giving back to the community. Being exploited by commercial interests is another thing.

Archie1954
Archie1954
2 years ago

A rose by any other name…..! This “arrangement” is slavery in reality and should not be countenanced by the American people.

Connie
Connie
2 years ago

Pay WOrkers a living wage for two reasons: 1) so the family will not have to send the commissary for food supplements and the basic needs of life the prisoners do not receive from the system, and 2) so the inmates can help support the families that were dependent on them economically so they do not have to rely on the welfare system. As many of the inmates were railroaded with plea bargains for crimes they did not actually commit, this keep families of inmates from turning to crime to survive

Remove slavery from the U.S. Constitution

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Help us reach 250,000

The United States must outlaw slavery once and for all by striking the “Exception Clause”, also known as the “Punishment Clause”, from the US Constitution and from state constitutions. The Punishment Clause has been a blight on the US for over 100 years, creating an economic incentive for increasing incarceration rates and using incarcerated people as a source of cheap, exploitable labor.  

We are demanding all states explicitly outlaw slavery and involuntary servitude as punishment for a crime and for US Congress to pass the Abolition Amendment to strike the Punishment Clause from the 13th Amendment of the US Constitution. 

*222,369 actions have been collected from our partner End the Exception.

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