After a few months working in his prison's hot and crowded kitchen, Richard Lilgerose was having trouble sleeping. "I was always anxious about having to go to the kitchen and work under these conditions for hours upon hours and not knowing when I was going to be able to go back to my unit to get some rest," he said. Lilgerose, who has been in prison for 20 years, suffers from PTSD, and says the chaos of the kitchen made it hard to work there. He kept asking for breaks, and eventually the guards stopped making him work. But Lilgerose says they also punished him, moving him to a unit with less access to the outdoors and to phones. He also lost "good time," which can determine parole eligibility. What Lilgerose experienced is common in prisons nationwide. The 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution abolished slavery, but it included an exception: Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude shall exist, it declares, except as punishment for a crime. Prison rights advocates say this exception allows for forced labor in prisons, NPR reports. The unexpected part of Lilgerose's story isn't so much what he experienced, but where he experienced it. Lilgerose is in prison in Colorado, which changed its own constitution to say no one could be forced to work, not even prisoners.
Five years ago this month, Colorado became the first state in modern U.S. history to enact this constitutional change. (Rhode Island banned slavery without exception in 1842.) Since then, there has been a growing movement across the U.S. to get rid of what's become known as the "exception clause." Nebraska, Utah, Alabama, Oregon, Tennessee and Vermont have all changed their constitutions in the past three years. At least nine more have introduced legislation, including Nevada, where residents will vote on this issue in 2024. In Colorado, the daily lives of people behind bars haven't changed. "Unfortunately, here we are five years later, and we have not seen the change happen inside of our prisons. It's been business as usual," says Kym Ray, a community organizer with Together Colorado, a multi-faith community organization. "It was never intended to be a symbolic sort of thing, like we removed it from our constitution with no expectation of change. We actually did, in fact, expect there to be some level of change."