By Laurel Spear
BATON ROUGE, LA — On Tuesday, Nov. 8, voters in five states—Alabama, Louisiana, Oregon, Tennessee, and Vermont—voted on ballot measures that would amend their state constitutions to prohibit involuntary servitude or slavery in prisons. In four of the five states, the measures passed, but in Louisiana voters rejected the measure due to confusion over ambiguous language.
The 13th Amendment, ratified in 1865, prohibits slavery or involuntary servitude, but a loophole in the amendment allows for slavery as a punishment for crimes. “The 13th Amendment didn’t actually abolish slavery — what it did was make it invisible,” explained Bianca Tylek, executive director of Worth Rises, a nonprofit working to reform the prison industry.
Directly after the 13th Amendment was passed, the loophole in the amendment allowed states to impose Black Codes. Aimed at the newly emancipated African-American population, these laws outlawed poverty, unemployment, and homelessness to help with labor shortages caused by the end of slavery. To this day, the prison industry has continued to abuse this technicality in order to circumvent incarcerated people’s workplace rights.
According to a June 2022 report by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), 76% of incarcerated workers are required to work otherwise they will face additional punishment. These penalties can range from loss of phone privileges or visitation rights to denial of sentence reduction or solitary confinement. The prison industry is a multibillion-dollar business, and yet workers make mere pennies per hour and are subject to the whim of prison administrators and workers.
Because incarcerated individuals are not given a choice in employment, they are subject to discriminatory and arbitrary decisions by prison administration when selecting their work assignments. Convicts do not have some of the most basic, universally-recognized workplace protections. Minimum wage and overtime pay do not apply to the incarcerated, and they do not have the right to unionize or the guarantee of a safe workspace.
In Louisiana, before the midterm elections, lawmakers working to abolish slavery in prisons ended up destroying Amendment 7, the measure to end involuntary servitude in prison. Sponsor of Amendment 7 and Louisiana State Representative Edmond Jordan (D) told voters to reject the amendment because of ambiguous language in the measure.
Jordan advised voters that Amendment 7 needed to be revised before being passed because it abolished involuntary servitude except as a lawfully administered punishment for crimes. Essentially, even if passed, Amendment 7 would not have changed Louisiana’s laws on slavery in prisons. Jordan explained that he believed the language in the measure could actually end up expanding slavery in prisons depending on how the courts rule.
“It doesn’t make sense, what [Jordan] did,” Tylek said. “The ballot initiative, at worst, wouldn’t change anything, but at best, it would end slavery … it’s not going to make things worse.” Amendment 7 would at least have been a symbolic victory for prison activists and incarcerated people in a state notorious for its prison conditions. In the last few years, activists have lobbied the Louisiana Legislature but have faced continued defeats, so when Amendment 7 reached the ballot many advocates were very excited.
But this excitement soon diminished after Rep. Jordan came out against the measure. This led to confusion in the constituency and ultimately to the demise of Amendment 7. “I just think it is going to be an uphill climb to get this back on the ballot, you know?” explained Norris Henderson, founder of Voice of the Experienced, an organization of formerly incarcerated advocates based in New Orleans.
Louisiana is notorious for its prisons, including the largest maximum-security prison in the country, Louisiana State Penitentiary. Better known as Angola prison farm, this prison is located on a former slave plantation and is often referred to as an example of modern-day slavery.
Curtis Davis served for over 35 years in the Louisiana State Penitentiary and told The Appeal he was only paid 2 cents an hour to pick crops such as cotton and okra while incarcerated. Davis explained how his supervisors forced him to walk for miles in the blazing Louisiana sun and he saw other incarcerated people suffering from dehydration and exhaustion. Desperate to get out of this grueling work, Davis dropped a weight on his foot on purpose but was charged with destruction of state property after seeing a doctor. After being released from prison in 2016, Davis founded Decarcerate Louisiana—a grassroots criminal justice organization—and he headed the campaign for Amendment 7.
After this year’s midterm elections, 15 states still allow slavery and involuntary servitude as punishment for crimes. Currently, there is a joint resolution called the Abolition Amendment in the Senate Judiciary Committee that would outlaw involuntary servitude as punishment. This amendment would close the loophole across the entire country, but to amend the US constitution, a two-thirds vote in both the House and Senate and ratification by three-fourths of the states are necessary. This difficulty in amending the Constitution led many advocates to turn to state-level initiatives such as those passed this year in the midterm elections.
Laurel is currently a junior at UC Berkeley studying Political Science with an emphasis on International Relations. She is from Los Angeles and outside of school, she enjoys cooking, snowboarding, painting, and going to concerts.