Voters in four states have approved ballot measures that would change their state constitutions to ban slavery and involuntary servitude as punishment for a crime, while voters in a fifth state rejected a flawed version of the question.
Events approved Tuesday, could reduce the use of prison labor in Alabama, Oregon, Tennessee and Vermont.
In Louisiana, a former slaveholding state and one of the few states where convicted felons are sentenced to hard labor, lawmakers trying to get rid of inmate labor torpedoed their own measure. They told voters to reject it because the ballot measure included ambiguous language that did not ban involuntary servitude in the criminal justice system.
Despite the setback in Louisiana, Max Partas, campaign coordinator for the Abolish Slavery National Network, called Tuesday’s vote on the anti-slavery measure historic.
“I believed that the people would choose liberty over slavery if we gave them the chance by taking the question of slavery from the legislatures and putting it in the hands of the people. And they proved us right,” he said.
The four approved initiatives won’t force immediate changes in state prisons, but they could prompt legal challenges to the practice of forcing inmates to work with the threat of sanctions or loss of privileges if they refuse to work.
The amendment to Vermont’s constitution removes the ambiguous language that supporters say and makes it clear that slavery and indentured servitude are prohibited in the state.
Although Vermont’s legislature was the first state to abolish adult slavery in 1777, its constitution stated that no person 21 years of age or older could serve as a slave unless bound by their own consent or by “the law of debt, loss , payment of fines, costs, or the like.” The amendment deletes this language and adds that all forms of slavery and indentured servitude are prohibited.
“We think this shows how forward-thinking and kind-hearted Vermonters are, and we look forward to using this as a springboard to do great work to end systemic racism in the future,” said Debbie Ingram, executive director of Vermont Interfaith Action. and a former state senator who sponsored the proposal.
The results were widely celebrated by anti-slavery advocates, including those who pushed for further amendments to the US Constitution, which prohibits slavery and involuntary servitude except as a form of criminal punishment. More than 150 years after enslaved Africans and their descendants were freed from slavery with the ratification of the 13th Amendment, the slavery exception still allows incarcerated individuals to use labor.
“Voters in Oregon and other states have faced party lines to say this stain needs to be removed from state constitutions,” Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkley, a Democrat, told The Associated Press.
“Now is the time for all Americans to come together and say this should be removed from the US Constitution. There should be no exceptions to the ban on slavery,” he said.
Coinciding with the creation of the Juneteenth federal holiday last year, Merkley and Rep. Rep. Nikema Williams, D-Georgia, reintroduced the legislation revise the 13th amendment to end the slavery exception. If approved by Congress, the constitutional amendment must be ratified by three-quarters of the US states.
After Tuesday’s vote, more than a dozen states still have constitutions that include language that allows for the slavery and involuntary servitude of prisoners. Several other states have no constitutional language for or against the use of forced labor in prison.
Colorado voters became the first to approve removing slavery exemption language from the state constitution in 2018, followed by Nebraska and Utah two years later.
Parthas said he and other advocates in his network worked with 15 states on anti-slavery legislation in 2022, though only five made it to the ballot. In 2023, the network plans to work with two dozen states.
“We will continue to do this as many times as necessary” until the U.S. reaches the 38-state threshold needed to revise the 13th Amendment, Partas said.
“Even our ancestors couldn’t get that far,” he said.
The movement to end or regulate the use of prison labor has been around for decades, since the former Confederate states sought ways to preserve chattel slavery after the Civil War. Southern states used racist laws known as the “Black Codes” to criminalize, imprison, and re-enslave black Americans for benign behavior.
Today, prison labor is a multi-billion dollar practice. By comparison, workers can earn pennies on the dollar. And prisoners who refuse to work can be denied privileges such as phone calls and family visits, and face solitary confinement — all punishments eerily similar to those used during pre-slavery.
“The 13th Amendment didn’t actually abolish slavery — it made it invisible,” Bianca Tailek, an anti-slavery advocate and executive director of the criminal justice advocacy group Worth Rises, told the AP before the election. day.
Passing ballot initiatives, especially in red states like Alabama, “is a great signal of what’s possible at the federal level,” she said.
“There’s a big opportunity here at this point,” Tailek said.
AP writer Lisa Rathke in Montpelier, Vermont contributed.
Aaron Morrison is a member of the AP Race and Ethnicity team based in New York. Follow him on Twitter at https://www.twitter.com/aaronlmorrison.
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