Amend the 13th : Outlaw slavery in the United States

It is 2021 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. Already we have witnessed Colorado, Utah, and Nebraska vote overwhelmingly in favor of striking the slavery Punishment Clause from their state constitutions and today several states aim to follow their lead.  

This year, Arkansas, California, Florida, Iowa, Louisiana, Minnesota, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Tennessee, Texas have introduced legislation 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 The Illinois House has already voted in favor of national change by endorsing the Abolition Amendment — an effort in Congress to strike the punishment clause from the US Constitution.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 

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

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!

  • June 22,  2021:  Freedom United joined more than 70 national organizations and sent a joint letter to Congress, addressed to Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, endorsing the recently introduced Abolition Amendment and urging immediate passage. Read the letter here.

    If you can, donate to sustain the campaign.

  • June 19,  2021:  WATCH! as coalition members from the Abolish Slavery National Network celebrate Juneteenth with the introduction of the Abolition Amendment!

  • June 18,  2021:  Ahead of Juneteenth, Senator Jeff Merkley and Congresswoman Nikema Williams have introduced the Abolition Amendment, which would strike the ‘Slavery Clause’ of the 13th Amendment that allows slavery to continue in the United States. Read more here. 

  • June 15,  2021: The California Assembly passed ACA 3, the bill set to amend the state constitution and abolish slavery! Next stop: Assembly Appropriations Committee

  • June 8,  2021: Freedom United wrote a support letter to the California Public Safety Committee stating our support for our campaign bill ACA 3 to end prison slavery in the state constitution. Read the letter here.

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

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2 months ago

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

2 days ago
Reply to  Archie1954

Why should prisoners have a holiday on our taxes

Ian Gemmell
Ian Gemmell
1 day ago
Reply to  Gerry

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

4 days 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 🙂

2 months ago

That sounds like slavery to me

Colin Abbott
Colin Abbott
2 days ago

I have no problem with prisoners working, as long as they are paid a regular wage for the type of work being done and, they must save the money for their release.

2 days ago

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

Elizabeth S. Lowell
Elizabeth S. Lowell
1 month ago

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

Remove slavery from the U.S. Constitution

Help us reach 15,000 actions

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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