Voters in three states approved ballot measures that will amend their state constitutions to outlaw slavery and involuntary servitude as punishment for crime, while those in a fourth state rejected the move. Measures approved Tuesday limit the use of prison labor in Alabama, Tennessee and Vermont. In Oregon, a “yes” vote was at the top of its anti-slavery ballot initiative, but the vote remained too early to call Wednesday morning.
In Louisiana, a former slave state, voters rejected a ballot question known as Amendment 7 that asked if they supported a constitutional amendment to ban the use of involuntary servitude in the criminal justice system.
The initiatives won’t force immediate changes in state prisons, but they could invite legal challenges over the practice of forcing prisoners to work under threat of penalties or loss of privileges if they refuse the work.
The findings were celebrated among anti-slavery advocates, including those pushing for further changes to the US Constitution, which prohibits enslavement and involuntary servitude except as a form of criminal punishment. More than 150 years after enslaved Africans and their descendants were freed from bondage through the ratification of the 13th Amendment, the slavery exception continues to allow the exploitation of a good labor force. walked by incarcerated people.
“Voters in Oregon and other states have come together across party lines to say this stain needs to be removed from state constitutions,” Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkley told The Associated Press. a democrat.
“Now it’s time for all Americans to come together and say it must be removed from the US Constitution. There should be no exceptions to the ban on slavery,” he said.
Coinciding with the creation of the June 19 federal holiday last year, Merkley and Rep. Nikema Williams, D-Georgia, reintroduced legislation to overhaul the 13th Amendment to end the slavery exception. If it wins congressional approval, the constitutional amendment must be ratified by three-quarters of the US states.
After Tuesday’s vote, more than a dozen states still have constitutions that include language authorizing slavery and involuntary servitude for prisoners. Several other states do not have constitutional language for or against the use of forced prison labor.
Voters in Colorado became the first to approve removing the slavery exception language from the state constitution in 2018, followed by Nebraska and Utah two years later.
The movement to end or regulate the use of prison labor has been around for decades, dating back to when the former Confederate States sought ways to maintain the use of chattel slavery after the Civil War. Southern states have used racist laws, called “black codes,” to criminalize, imprison, and re-enslave black Americans for benign behavior.
Today, prison labor is a multi-billion dollar practice. In comparison, workers can earn pennies on the dollar. And prisoners who refuse to work can be denied privileges such as phone calls and family visits, as well as face solitary confinement, all punishments eerily similar to those used during pre-slavery. -war.
“The 13th Amendment didn’t actually abolish slavery — what it did was make it invisible,” said Bianca Tylek, an anti-slavery activist and executive director of the criminal justice advocacy group Worth Rises, to the AP in an interview before the election. Day.
She said the passage of the ballot initiatives, especially in red states like Alabama, “is a great signal for what’s possible at the federal level.”
“There’s a big opportunity here right now,” Tylek said.
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