Is there any circumstance in the United States in which slavery should be legal? That is a question that voters in five states — Vermont, Oregon, Louisiana, Alabama and Tennessee — will consider this fall. Ballot measures in these states would amend state constitutions to eradicate slavery under any terms. Though the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution abolished slavery in 1865, it still includes an exception clause allowing it as “punishment for crime.” Many state constitutions use similar wording.
Prisoners are not legally considered slaves in the United Sates, but advocates for these amendments to state constitutions argue that prisoners are often treated as such. Organizers from the Abolish Slavery National Network — a group that has galvanized this effort — point out that incarcerated people are made to work for little money, often under threat of punishment.
“A lot of people ask, ‘Why y’all calling this slavery?'” said Savannah Eldridge, lead organizer for the group. “Because it is.”
“After the Civil War, Black people were made to work as slaves as part of prison systems,” says Sandy Chung of the American Civil Liberties Union of Oregon. The group supports the measure in its state. Chung says the amendment is not an effort to eliminate incarceration altogether but a step toward establishing basic rights for prisoners. “Just because someone is incarcerated and is being held accountable for a crime doesn’t mean they should be treated as a slave.”
If passed, these measures would not have an immediate, practical impact on imprisoned populations. The amendment does not specify that prisoners be paid at minimum wage, for example, or provide specifics about work environments. But it would “remove language allowing slavery and involuntary servitude as punishment for crime.” Three states — Colorado, Nebraska and Utah — have already made similar amendments.
Troy Ramsey was incarcerated for nearly 24 years. After he was released last year, Ramsey got involved in the campaign in Oregon to pass the measure. He says just changing the wording of the law has the potential to disrupt a pervasive power dynamic between prisoners and those who work at prisons. “A lot of officers use that language against you,” says Ramsey. “Because it says you can be treated like a slave while you’re incarcerated.”
The implications of these measures are concerning to law enforcement in at least one state. In Oregon’s voter guide, the Oregon State Sheriffs’ Association submitted an argument in opposition to the state’s measure: “Oregon Sheriffs do not condone or support slavery,” it reads, but if the measure were to pass as written, “Sheriffs will have no choice but to suspend all reformative programs.” These programs include working in jail libraries, cleaning cells and doing laundry, among other tasks — jobs that the association argues help incarcerated people gain skills and incentivize good behavior. The statement also reflects concerns about increased costs.
The Oregon State Sheriffs’ Association did not reply to requests for comment.
Eldridge, of the Abolish Slavery National Network, says Oregon’s measure would not immediately disrupt current work programs in prisons or demand budget changes. But she argues that increasing pay and living standards for prisoners would be a good use of state money eventually. She points out the historical parallel with ending slavery the first time in the United States: “We know it’s wrong, but we can’t afford to end slavery,” she says. “It doesn’t even sound right.” Economic arguments, she says, should not justify forced labor — even in prisons — which she describes as slavery.