This week, U.S. lawmakers took aim at language in the 13th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution that permits slavery as punishment for a crime, language that has permitted the continuous labor exploitation of incarcerated people.
Lawmakers Senators Bernie Sanders of Vermont, Ed Markey of Massachusetts and Chris Van Hollen of Maryland have all co-signed the joint resolution, a legislative measure in the U.S. to propose constitutional amendments.
Associated Press reports:
Constitutional amendments are rare and require approval by two-thirds of the House and Senate, as well as ratification by three-quarters of state legislatures. Should the proposal fail to move out of committee in the remaining weeks of the current Congress, Merkley said he hoped to revive it next year.
The effort has been endorsed by more than a dozen human rights and social justice organizations, including The Sentencing Project, the Anti-Recidivism Coalition and Color of Change.
“It is long past time that Congress excise this language from the U.S. Constitution which should begin to put an end to the abusive practices derived from it,” said Laura Pitter, deputy director of the U.S. program at Human Rights Watch, which also endorsed the amendment.
Surprisingly, more than 20 state constitutions in the U.S. still contain language that allow slavery as punishment for a crime but others are making progress by amending their constitutions.
In November, 68% of voters in Nebraska voted for an amendment to the state constitution that removed involuntary servitude as criminal punishment, and back in 2018, Colorado became the first state to vote to remove this language from their constitution.
On dismantling the historical system of slavery, the U.S. Constitution’s 13th Amendment created space for the continued exploitation of African Americans and now other discriminated groups, largely from poorer migrant communities, to be essentially trafficked into the prison and detention system for labor exploitation under the control of private companies. Some have called this the “legal re-enslavement” of African Americans.
Michele Goodwin, a constitutional law professor at the University of California told Associated Press:
“Your freedom has been taken away — that’s the punishment that society has assigned,” she said. “The punishment is not that you do slave work, that is unpaid labor or barely paid labor.”
Freedom United is campaigning against forced labor in the U.S. prison and detention industry. Sign the petition here and join over 13,000 supporters calling for an end to prison slavery.
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