After 150 years, slavery will be on the ballot in Oregon and four other states in November as a resurgent abolitionist movement attempts to alter prison labor.
Oregon, Alabama, Louisiana, Tennessee, and Vermont voters will decide on state constitutional amendments abolishing slavery and involuntary servitude. Advocates say the modifications are needed to remove obsolete language from state constitutions and make all jail employment voluntary.
Since 2018, Colorado, Nebraska, and Utah enacted identical ballot proposals. Curtis Ray Davis II, who served 25 years in Angola for second-degree murder, is lobbying for the amendment in Louisiana.
Most people thought it was impossible to get the amendment on the ballot in Louisiana, but Louisiana and America shouldn’t legalize slavery, he added.
The 13th Amendment, passed in 1865, ended slavery and involuntary servitude in the U.S. The “exception clause” loophole led to draconian 19th-century Black Codes in the South that forced Black people to work for trivial offenses like vagrancy. Black Codes preceded Jim Crow laws, which were banned in 1964.
Max Parthas, co-director of state operations for the Abolish Slavery National Network and co-host of Abolition Today, said they want to remove inappropriate language and safeguard citizens from slavery and forced servitude.
Parthas wants to repeal the 13th Amendment’s exception clause. They expect Congress’s delayed effort would gain steam until states amend their constitutions.
20 state constitutions allow slavery or forced servitude as criminal penalties. Vermont was the first state to outlaw slavery in 1777, although its constitution allowed involuntary servitude in certain circumstances.
Removing exception clauses from the U.S. and state constitutions would be symbolic or might transform the jail system. Advocates say the symbolism is crucial given the horrible historical context, but eliminating involuntary slavery might help improve prison pay and working conditions.
No state that passed the amendment has amended its prison labor requirements, but litigation is anticipated.
Rev. Mark Hughes of Burlington, Vermont, executive director of Abolish Slavery Vermont and Justice for All Vermont, said the amendment is more than symbolic. Vermont has allowed slavery the longest, 245 years. No constitution before Vermont authorized slavery, he claimed.
Colorado banned slavery and involuntary servitude in 2018; Rhode Island did it in 1842. Two years after a confusing ballot effort failed, Coloradans approved 66% to 34% for an amendment reading: “There shall never be slavery or involuntary servitude in our state.”
Vote initiatives have passed elsewhere. Nebraska passed Amendment 1 68% to 32% and Utah passed Amendment C 80% to 20% in 2020. California, Florida, Ohio, New Jersey, and Texas have submitted proposals to put slavery on the ballot since 2020.
A lawsuit seeking increased prison staff wages was dropped after Colorado’s amendment passed. Another lawsuit seeks to end jail work. Richard Lilgerose and Harold Mortis sued Colorado Democratic Gov. Jared Polis, the Colorado Department of Corrections, and the agency in February, alleging involuntary servitude.
Able-bodied inmates in Colorado must work in the kitchen, laundry, as guardians, etc.
The state does not comment on pending litigation, but court papers say the claim should be dismissed since Colorado penalizes inmates for not working. Inmates who refuse to labor may lose time off their sentences, spend up to 21 hours a day in their cell, or receive fewer phone calls, visitors, and meals.
If the inmates’ class action complaint succeeds, their lawyers say Colorado may have to change its system.
David Seligman, executive director of Towards Justice, a Denver nonprofit law firm that campaigns for economic justice said the state must establish incentives for individuals to work, such as pay. “That’s how it works in America. “Voluntary work”
To avoid lawsuits, some states have included language allowing jail work. Amendment C of Utah declares, “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude shall exist” but adds, “This does not extend to the otherwise lawful administration of the criminal justice system.”
Democrat Raumesh Akbari introduced Amendment 3 in Tennessee in 2019 as part of a global push to repeal state constitution exemption clauses.
“An organization member presented it to me, and I thought it was amazing,” she added. She added a second sentence, so the proposed amendment now reads: “Slavery and involuntary servitude are permanently outlawed.” This clause does not restrict a condemned prisoner from working.
The Corrections Department requested the exception. She said, “I don’t think it would have gone forward without our agreement.” “Working isn’t enslavement. This will allow prisoners to work.
She said, “This could be partisan, but it’s not.” Former Tennessee Republican Sen. Bob Corker advises the campaign. “This strategy is bipartisan”
Louisiana Republicans killed a ballot measure to repeal the exclusion provision last year. The Democratic sponsor agreed to compromise language demanded by Republicans, and the Louisiana House and Senate passed it overwhelmingly.
Do you support an amendment to ban involuntary servitude except in criminal justice?
The amendment’s practical impact in Louisiana is unclear.
“If this amendment passes, there will be no motivation to incarcerate Black people,” said Davis, who never made more than 20 cents an hour in prison. After his release in 2016, he wrote “Slave State: Evidence of Apartheid in America” and launched a Baton Rouge criminal justice reform group.
He pushed state legislators this spring, believing the constitutional amendment is moral and religious. He aims to visit all 64 parishes in the state before Nov. 8 to promote voting turnout.
Republican state Rep. Alan Seabaugh, who opposed the legislation in committee, claimed it would have “no effect.” Symbolic. It states what’s previously written, but worse.”
The state constitution outlaws slavery and involuntary servitude, except for crimes. New phrasing prohibits slavery and involuntary servitude, but “does not extend to criminal justice”
Seabaugh: “The new amendment enables slavery.” “Nobody thought of it that way, yet it says so.”
Some proponents of state ballot initiatives this year prefer not to speculate.
Part of the Abolish Slavery National Network remarked, “This isn’t a labor bill.” “We’re eradicating slavery.” What happens next?
Hughes in Vermont said, “Who knows?” “I want slavery abolished.”
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