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Voters in Four States Change Constitution to Ban Prison Slavery

by Keith Sanders

The November 2022 elections did more than send new faces to Congress and statehouses around the country. They also saw historic ballot measures passed to change the constitutions in four states. Voters in Alabama, Tennessee, Oregon, and Vermont approved measures to amend or rewrite their constitutions to prohibit slavery and involuntary servitude as punishment for crimes.

The changes close a loophole in the Thirteenth Amendment to the federal constitution, which prohibits slavery “except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.” That has permitted states to force prisoners to work for shockingly low wages – or sometimes no wage at all.

In Alabama, a new constitution banning all slavery was approved by over 75% of the state’s voters. Oregon’s Measure 112 to ban slavery and involuntary servitude passed with over 55% of the vote. Tennessee’s Amendment 3 accomplished the same thing with support from almost 80% of the state’s voters. And Vermont’s Proposal 2, which also prohibits slavery and involuntary servitude, passed with close to 90% of the vote.

These states followed Colorado, the first state in America to remove language from its constitution allowing slavery and involuntary servitude in 2018. Nevada and Utah also changed their constitutions two years later.

A fifth state had a similar measure on the ballot: Louisiana, a former slaveholding state that continues to sentence people to hard labor in prison. However, the effort there failed after lawmakers who authored the measure admitted their language was fatally ambiguous and urged voters to reject it.

People not familiar with America’s carceral roots may be shocked to learn that such measures are even needed. Yet in fact, over a dozen state constitutions still permit slavery and involuntary servitude as punishment for crimes.

Max Parthas, campaign coordinator for the Abolish Slavery National Network, applauded the four most recent measures. “I believed that the people would choose freedom over taking the slavery question away from legislators and putting it into the hands of the people,” Parthas said.

Nevertheless, changes in state constitutions will not immediately affect policies in those state prison systems. Rather, banning slavery and involuntary servitude will more likely spark lawsuits challenging rules that coerce prisoners to work with threats of loss of privileges.

Changing the federal constitution would require not only Congressional approval but also votes from the majorities of lawmakers in at least 38 states. Nevertheless, Parthas and other antislavery advocates remain hopeful. They have targeted two dozen states to put similar constitutional changes on the ballot in 2023.

Source: AP News

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