Updated: Jan 3
Breakfast at Louisiana’s state Capitol includes coffee, cookies and egg sandwiches made by inmates working for no pay. “They force us to work,” said Jonathan Archille, 29, who is among more than a dozen current and formerly incarcerated people who told the Washington Post they have felt like enslaved people in the prison system. Archille said prison staff use that term . “You’re a slave — that’s what they tell us,” he said. Ken Pastorick of the Department of Public Safety & Corrections said it “does not tolerate” such language and is looking into the allegation. In the 2022 midterm elections, voters in four states approved changes to their constitutions to remove language allowing involuntary servitude as a punishment for crime. Louisiana rejected such a ballot measure by a nearly 22-point margin. “The drafting of our language didn’t turn out the way we wanted it to,” said state Rep. Edmond Jordan, who sponsored the bill to change Louisiana’s constitution before later urging people to vote against the ballot measure that would have ratified it. The amendments that passed in other states aren’t expected to lead to dramatic changes, which would require further legislation or legal challenges, and it’s unclear what would have happened had the more muddled Louisiana measure won approval. The result is an unsettled debate in a state that has one of the nation's highest incarceration rates.
Advocates are pushing for more state constitutional changes in coming elections, saying they are fighting for protections in a system that disproportionately affects minorities and forces many people to work for little or no pay. There are campaigns in about a dozen states, including Florida, New York and Ohio, for similar ballot measures in 2024. The question could return in Louisiana in 2023. As many as 800,000 incarcerated people work, providing more than $9 billion a year in services and creating around $2 billion in goods and commodities, found a study from the University of Chicago’s Law School and the American Civil Liberties Union. The average prison wage is 52 cents an hour, while seven states are not required to pay prisoners for work. Many spend half their earnings on taxes and accommodations. Louisiana law requires inmates to work. Prison Enterprises, a for-profit arm of Louisiana’s corrections department, sells items made by prisoners, including office furniture, mattresses and offender uniforms. Archille was sent to prison when he was 17 after for attempted murder for shooting two people from a car. He has spent three of his 13 years in prison working at the Capitol on the “Trusty” program, which gives incarcerated people who show good behavior the chance to work outside prison grounds. Archille’s mother was told her son was in “lockdown” while under investigation for speaking to a journalist, which included isolation and loss of certain privileges. In Louisiana, there were 27,000 people imprisoned as of October. Louisiana inmates earn 2 cents to 40 cents an hour.