an exception to the slavery ban for prisoners is the subject of referendums in five states

This is one of the peculiarities Midterm elections in the United States: in addition to renewing all 435 seats in the House of Representatives, 35 of the 100 seats for senators and governors in 36 of the 50 states, this year 132 local referendums are being organized in 37 states

These relate to education, infrastructure, abortion, health, recreational marijuana legalization… and for voters in Alabama, Louisiana, Oregon, Tennessee and Vermont – one of the first states to abolish slavery, in 1777 – on the removal from their respective Constitutions of references to “ ME’meslavery » and in the “involuntary servitude”.

Because the writing of the XIIIme amendment to the United States Constitution, which ended slavery, left an exception: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as punishment for a crime for which the guilty party has been duly convicted, shall exist in the United States or in any place subject to its jurisdiction. » It is this gap that the local referendums propose to fill.

Prisoners, work without rights

The final abolition of slavery, in 1865, was accompanied in particular by racial discrimination on the part of the police and the judicial system, one of the consequences of which was an incarceration rate of African Americans almost five times higher than that of whites, as is recalled in a study published at the end of 2021 by The Sentencing Project research and advocacy center. However, in the prison system, prisoners suffer a double penalty: deprivation of liberty and compulsory labor, practically without pay.

Read the Big Picture blog (2014): Mass incarceration and Jim Crow

According to a report by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), of the approximately 1.2 million inmates in federal and state prisons, about 800,000 are forced to work for very low wages. According to the database of the Worth Rises group, an NGO that advocates for the dismantling of the prison industry and the end of the exploitation of prisoners, thousands of companies use this labor at a very low cost: from 13 cents to $1, 30 an hour, when the federal hourly minimum is $7.25. In three states, Texas, Georgia and Arkansas, prisoners are not even paid.

The ACLU notes that these incarcerated workers produce more than $2 billion a year in goods and merchandise and contribute to prison maintenance to the tune of more than $9 billion a year. On the West Coast, they sometimes serve public service missions: Washington State uses them to fight wildfires. Like the still-very-democratic California…which rejected a ballot measure aimed at ending forced labor for prisoners used as auxiliary firefighters.

Prisoners strike against their exploitation

In the summer of 2018, inmates in US prisons went on strike. Supported by various associations for the defense of civil rights, they made their demands known, including “immediate improvement of conditions” ownership and voting rights for all of them.

read also Prisoners go on strike in US prisons

In the process, during the 2018 midterm elections, Colorado banned forced prison labor, followed in 2020 by Utah and Nebraska. And so perhaps it will be the turn this year for another five states.

If the battle is waged state by state, it is because of the difficulty of abolishing it at the federal level. In fact, an amendment to this effect was presented in 2021 by Democratic senators to modify the Constitution and include an article that stipulates that “neither slavery nor involuntary servitude can be imposed as a penalty for a crime”. But its adoption requires a two-thirds vote of the House and Senate, as well as ratification by three-fourths of the state legislatures, which is virtually impossible.

Also read: Ava DuVernay’s movie about mass incarceration won’t know the shadow of theaters

Pending the outcome of Tuesday’s vote, slavery remains enshrined in the Constitutions of Oregon, Nevada, North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Indiana, Kentucky, Tennessee, Arkansas and Mississippi. The notion of “involuntary servitude”it is found in the states of California, Kansas, Iowa, Michigan, Ohio, North Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, and Louisiana.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *