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“I was a slave at the time”. Reflections from a formerly incarcerated person

  • Published on
    March 1, 2022
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  • Category:
    Prison slavery
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In an opinion piece for Esquire, award-winning writer and formerly incarcerated person Mitchell S. Jackson reflects on his experiences of forced prison labor and efforts in Oregon to strike language from the state constitution that allows slavery as punishment for a crime.

Words matter

This November 2022, Oregonians will have a chance to vote on Senate Joint Resolution 10 (SJR10), a constitutional amendment that proposes to remove the language that permits people convicted of crimes to be subjected to slavery.

SJR10 proposes to amend article 1, section 34 of the Oregon constitution that reads:

“There shall be neither slavery, nor servitude in the state, otherwise than as a punishment for a crime, whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.”

This language is verbatim to the Thirteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution that purportedly banned slavery in all the U.S., with one glaring omission: except as punishment for a crime. 

SJR10 was created by a group of men incarcerated in the Oregon State Penitentiary in partnership with the grassroots organization Oregonians Against Slavery and Involuntary Servitude (OASIS). Their goal is to strike the language and propose the addition of a new article:

Upon conviction of a crime, an Oregon court or a probation or parole agency may order the convicted person to engage in education, counseling, treatment, community service or other alternative to incarceration, as part of sentencing for the crime, in accordance with programs have been in place historically or that may be developed in the future, to provide accountability, reformation, protection of society or rehabilitation. 

Who benefits, who is deemed disposable

The language of the Thirteenth Amendment paved the way for mass incarceration. Mitchell S. Jackson writes:

Following the Civil War, that clause, along with the bigoted laws that became the Black Codes, paved an oil-slicked road to an era of mass incarceration, and the language still figures into America’s first-in-the-world imprisonment rates.

Yet there are those who still oppose the goals of SJR10, namely Oregon legislator Kevin Mannix who is worried that the amendment would create a challenge to the mandated 40-hour work week for all Oregon prisoners by way of Measure 17.

Mannix touts the “benefits” of Measure 17, the act that demands involuntary servitude from all prisoners. However, what his arguments fail to mention is the billions of dollars reaped from private prison labor.

Take California for example. The State pays incarcerated workers eight to thirty-seven cents an hour for part-time work and twelve to fifty-six dollars per month for full-time work. Some work entailed incarcerated people to work as “firefighters—often on the dangerous front lines—and then barred them from being hired as firefighters once they were released or paroled, by reason of a rule against hiring felons.”

The bigger picture

The amendment proposed by OASIS is part of a greater national movement in eradicating slavery. There are 19 other states with language that mandates slavery remaining in their constitution.

Jorgan Schott director of Legislative strategy at OASIS said, “This is more than just about words: BIPOC communities are disproportionately impacted by our legal system. Passing this legislation amplifies the message that Oregon is committed to being actively anti-racist.”

Freedom United is urgently calling on all U.S. states to outlaw slavery by scrapping the Exception Clause of the 13th Amendment that allows slavery as punishment for a crime. Join the campaign today.

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