Voters in four states have approved ballot measures that will change their state constitutions to prohibit slavery and involuntary servitude as punishment for crime, while those in a fifth state rejected a flawed version of the question.
The measures approved Tuesday could curtail the use of prison labor in Alabama, Oregon, Tennessee and Vermont.
In Louisiana, a former slave-holding state and one of a handful that sentences convicted felons to hard labor, lawmakers trying to get rid of forced prisoner labor ended up torpedoing their own measure. They told voters to reject it because the ballot measure included ambiguous language that did not prohibit involuntary servitude in the criminal justice system.
Despite the setback in Louisiana, Max Parthas, campaigns coordinator for the Abolish Slavery National Network, called Tuesday's vote on anti-slavery measures historic.
“I believed that the people would choose freedom over slavery, if we gave them the opportunity, by taking the slavery question away from the legislators and putting it into the hands of the people. And they proved us right," he said.
The four approved initiatives won't force immediate changes in the states’ prisons, but they may invite legal challenges over the practice of coercing prisoners to work under threat of sanctions or loss of privileges if they refuse the work.
Vermont’s constitutional amendment removes what supporters say is ambiguous language and makes clear that slavery and indentured servitude are prohibited in the state.
While Vermont's legislature was the first state to abolish adult slavery in 1777, its constitution stated that no person 21 or older should serve as a slave unless bound by their own consent or “by law for the payment of debts, damages, fines, costs, or the like.” The amendment removes that language and adds that slavery and indentured servitude in any form are banned.
“We think it shows how forward thinking and good-natured Vermonters are and we’re looking forward to using it as a springboard to do a lot of work on dismantling systemic racism going forward,” said Debbie Ingram, executive director of Vermont Interfaith Action and a former state senator who sponsored the proposal.
The results were celebrated widely among anti-slavery advocates, including those pushing to further amend the U.S. 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 released from bondage through ratification of the 13th Amendment, the slavery exception continues to permit the exploitation of labor by incarcerated individuals.
“Voters in Oregon and other states have come together across party lines to say that this stain must be removed from state constitutions,” Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkley, a Democrat, told The Associated Press.
“Now, it is time for all Americans to come together and say that it must be struck from the U.S. Constitution. There should be no exceptions to a ban on slavery,” he said.
Coinciding with the creation of the Juneteenth federal holiday last year, Merkley and Rep. Nikema Williams, D-Georgia, reintroduced legislation to revise the 13th Amendment to end the slavery exception. If it wins approval in Congress, the constitutional amendment must be ratified by three-fourths of U.S. states.
After Tuesday’s vote, more than a dozen states still have constitutions that include language permitting slavery and involuntary servitude for prisoners. Several other states have no constitutional language for or against the use of forced prison labor.
Voters in Colorado became the first to approve removal of slavery exception language from the state constitution in 2018, followed by Nebraska and Utah two years later.
Parthas said he and other advocates in his network worked with 15 states on anti-slavery legislation in 2022, although only five made it to the ballot. In 2023, the network plans to work with two dozen states.
"We'll keep doing it as many times as necessary," until the U.S. reaches the threshold of 38 states needed to revise the 13th Amendment, Parthas said.
“Even our ancestors were unable to get this far," he said.
The movement to end or regulate the use of prison labor has existed for decades, since the time when former Confederate states sought ways to maintain the use of chattel slavery after the Civil War. Southern states used racist laws, referred to as “Black codes,” to criminalize, imprison and re-enslave Black Americans over benign behavior.
Today, prison labor is a multibillion-dollar practice. By comparison, workers can make pennies on the dollar. And prisoners who refuse to work can be denied privileges such as phone calls and visits with family, as well as face solitary confinement, all punishments that are eerily similar to those used during antebellum slavery.
“The 13th Amendment didn’t actually abolish slavery — what it did was make it invisible,” Bianca Tylek, an anti-slavery advocate and the executive director of the criminal justice advocacy group Worth Rises, told the AP in an interview ahead of Election Day.
She said passage of the ballot initiatives, especially in red states like Alabama, “is a great signal for what’s possible at the federal level.”
“There is a big opportunity here, in this moment,” Tylek said.