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Vote Set In Five States To Stop Allowing Slavery As Prison Penalty

Five states will vote in November on whether to eliminate language in their state constitutions that allows slavery as punishment in prisons. The exception was written into the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery more than 150 years ago. Experts say measures on the ballot in Tennessee, Alabama, Louisiana, Oregon and Vermont could buoy growing prison-reform efforts in a nation where roughly 800,000 prisoners work, often being forced to do so and for little to no pay, the Washington Post reports. The 13th Amendment bans slavery or involuntary servitude, except when it is used as punishment for a crime. If passed, the proposals would wholly abolish slavery in those states, though they would not automatically change protocols on prison labor or inmate pay.

While not all states have constitutions that explicitly permit slavery and involuntary servitude as criminal punishments, only three have passed similar legislation to remove the exception. Colorado was the first to do so in 2018, followed by Nebraska and Utah two years later. “This is the beginning of a wave,” said Sharon Dolovich, a law professor at the University of California Los Angeles. “I suspect that in 10 years maybe we’ll be horrified that, in 2022, most states had this on the books.” “We have to come to terms with the fact that the very amendment that freed the slaves has a clause to re-enslave them,” said Robert Chase, an associate professor at Stony Brook University and the director of Historians Against Slavery. “For an entire generation, it put Black men and women back into slavery by incarcerating them and selling their labor to private corporations.” Prison workers in the U.S. produce about $2 billion a year in goods and commodities and more than $9 billion a year in services that maintain prisons. Meanwhile, they’re paid nothing in seven states and an average of about 52 cents per hour nationally.


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A daily report co-sponsored by Arizona State University, Criminal Justice Journalists, and the National Criminal Justice Association

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