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

Amend the 13th : Outlaw slavery in the United States

It is 2022 and slavery and involuntary servitude is still legal in the United States.

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

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. 

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.2

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 

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.”3

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. 4

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.5 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.6

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.7

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!

  • November 9, 2022: We’re happy to share that Alabama, Oregon, Tennessee and Vermont have abolished slavery in all forms including forced prison labor!

  • September 20, 2022: Alabama, Louisiana, Oregon, Tennessee and Vermont have midterm elections ballot measures to amend the punishment clause of their state constitutions.

  • June 30, 2022: Despite our best efforts, ACA 3 failed in the California Senate. Bill author Senator Sydney Kamlager tweeted, “The CA State Senate just reaffirmed its commitment to keeping slavery and involuntary servitude in the state’s constitution.”

  • May 31, 2022: Thanks to the advocacy efforts of Freedom United and other partners, on a successful unanimous vote, the Senate Public Safety Committee decided to move ACA 3 toward the ballot in November 2022.

  • May 20, 2022: Together with other partners, we wrote to the Senate Public Safety Committee and to the Elections & Constitutional Amendments committee of California, supporting ACA 3 (Assembly Constitutional Amendment), which would remove involuntary servitude from the California Constitution. 

Chip in and help end modern slavery once and for all.

Freedom United is interested in hearing from our community and welcomes relevant, informed comments, advice, and insights that advance the conversation around our campaigns and advocacy. We value inclusivity and respect within our community. To be approved, your comments should be civil.

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Elizabeth S. Lowell
Elizabeth S. Lowell
1 year ago

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

Lon Ball
Lon Ball
9 months ago

First decriminalize and legalize drugs; end Ear on Drugs & end 1994 crime Bill. Attack incarceration! Review Wm F Buckeley’s call to legalize w / bipartisan bill. Doesn’t require expensive, Constitutional confirmation.

tyler
tyler
7 months ago
Reply to  Lon Ball

Oregon did… so we will see what happens to them in time.

Mel M
Mel M
8 months ago
Reply to  Lon Ball

No, dangerous drugs should never be legal

vee
vee
5 months ago
Reply to  Mel M

Alcohol is the worst drug going.

Connie
Connie
1 year 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

Archie1954
Archie1954
1 year ago

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

Gerry
Gerry
1 year ago
Reply to  Archie1954

Why should prisoners have a holiday on our taxes

Dara
Dara
9 months 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 »

Stephen Smith
Stephen Smith
1 year ago
Reply to  Gerry

Prison is no holiday or else everybody would be trying to get in!

Ian Gemmell
Ian Gemmell
1 year ago
Reply to  Gerry

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

anu
anu
1 year ago
Reply to  Archie1954

pls pay in bitcoin or in FX to reassure them you are nto US cit and when you travel there – maybe you will get discount.. no? okay 🙂

Michael
Michael
1 year ago

That sounds like slavery to me

Joseph
Joseph
1 year ago

If prisoners are employed then pay them the same salary as the rest of the population.

Dara
Dara
9 months ago
Reply to  Joseph

Not only are they employed, they are FORCED to work. If they refuse they can and are written up with a 115 which can and does keep them from getting paroled and if they get enough of them, they get locked up in the hole.

Remove slavery from the U.S. Constitution

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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. 

 

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