4 US States Vote to Ban Forced Prison Labor

A similar effort to ban forced convict labor in Louisiana was soundly defeated with roughly two-thirds voting against.

Prison slavery graffiti joins Banksy’s “Homeless Lincoln” in New Orleans, 2009. Building since demolished. (satanoid, CC BY 2.0, Wikimedia Commons)

By  Jon Queally
Common Dreams

Voters in Alabama, Tennessee, Oregon and Vermont approved ballot measures Tuesday that would bar forced labor as punishment for those convicted of crimes in those states — an effort to close what some characterize as a “slavery loophole” contained in many state constitutions as well as within the U.S. Constitution’s 13th Amendment, which put an end to chattel slavery in 1865.

While advocates for prisoner rights applauded passage in those four states, a similar effort to ban forced convict labor in Louisiana — known as Amendment 7 — was soundly defeated with roughly two-thirds voting against.

[Related: JOHN KIRIAKOU: American Gulag]

The approved measures, as The Hill reported early Wednesday, “are victories for advocates looking for states to revise language in their constitutions that allow forced labor in the criminal justice system.” 

Following news of the passage of Measure 112 in Oregon and similar initiatives elsewhere, Sen. Jeffery Merkley (D-Ore.) said,

“Tonight, voters in Oregon and other states have come together across party lines to say that this stain must be removed from state constitutions. 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.”

Sterling Cunio, a board member of Oregonians United to End Slavery, which backed the measure, told Oregon Public Broadcasting that the approval sends an important message. 

“The idea that we as a state have said that no human being — regardless of their past — should be considered a slave or involuntary servant, how is that not exciting?” Cunio said.

“To see that not only Oregonians voted to remove this language from our state’s document, but the hope and the message, the optimism that it serves for people who are currently incarcerated who have been deemed and classified slaves,” he added. “I can’t tell you what a relief it is to know that there is no longer a legal status of slave or involuntary servitude in Oregon.”

 Jon Queally is managing editor of Common Dreams.

This article is from  Common Dreams.

18 comments for “4 US States Vote to Ban Forced Prison Labor

  1. Dave E
    November 11, 2022 at 01:04

    The original sponsor of the Louisiana measure asked the public not to vote for it because the final clause made it ineffective. He plans to come back with a more clearly worded version of the bill next year and, if this version is already on the books, it would give legislators an excuse not to support next year’s bill.

    The fact that the original sponsor publicly stated that people should not vote for it because he didn’t believe it would be effective surely helped sink this year’s bill. Now, he really needs to deliver a good one next year.

  2. Tennegon
    November 10, 2022 at 19:48

    Speaking from Oregon, what the author didn’t include in the article was that while, yes, the measure passed. Some 45 per cent of the vote was no. That one struck me most Wednesday morning.

  3. Moochie
    November 10, 2022 at 19:21

    Good news.

    But “an effort to close what some characterize as a “slavery loophole” contained in many state constitutions as well as within the U.S. Constitution’s 13th Amendment”. I don’t get this at all, there’s no loophole. Slavery is still legal in the United States. Explicitly and inarguably. Right there in the Amendment, in simple words anyone can understand. Until that Amendment is altered, slavery is legal. PERIOD, no “loophole” required.

    • Eddy Schmid
      November 11, 2022 at 02:26

      And this very same Government and it’s people point the finger at China for allegedly doing similar ???????????

    • Gary Grass
      November 12, 2022 at 10:50

      It’s explicit, but still a loophole. The exception language was something that had been previously used for states entering the union as free states rather than slave states. It was not in all proposed versions of the Amendment. The function of it was to effectively end the plantation system, not immediately or completely at first, but it made a big difference. The Thirteenth Amendment is imperfect but should not be trivialized.

  4. Patrick Cassel
    November 10, 2022 at 18:55

    If you’re not contributing to society in a positive way then IMOP you have NO place in society. Forced or not is no concern of mine, you make bad choices you need to pay it back like working and making enough revenue to pay the cost of your prison term and stop punishing tax payers.

    • Rebecca Turner
      November 11, 2022 at 03:15

      I bet you haven’t been punished for every bad choice you made throughout your life. There is nothing at all of the remotest value in your philosophy.

  5. Jeff Harrison
    November 10, 2022 at 10:56

    LMAO. It comes as no surprise to me that (a) Louisiana would vote to keep legal slavery alive and (b) that the US would be guilty of the very “forced labor” that we accuse the Chinese of….

    • Eddy Schmid
      November 11, 2022 at 02:27

      My thoughts exactly.

    • Gary Grass
      November 12, 2022 at 10:53

      The story does not actually say there is forced labor. I’m pretty sure there is, but the fact that something is outlawed does not mean it has any prevalence.

  6. Lois Gagnon
    November 10, 2022 at 10:51

    Excellent news! Shame on Louisiana.

    • T.D.
      November 10, 2022 at 11:50

      The inmates in Louisiana fight each other for the jobs on the extensive work farms there. They are outdoors on open land where they feel free, they work with animals that provide emotional comfort. This, rather than sitting a disgusting box. You could use a reality check.

      • Lois Gagnon
        November 11, 2022 at 18:40

        Are you saying 100% of the prison jobs fall into this category? I highly doubt it. Corporations are making bank using prison labor to manufacture goods for cheaper than places like Vietnam and charging the normal price to consumers. Kamala Harris as AG in California tried to keep prisoners incarcerated after their release date because releasing them would be bad for the economy according to her. The system has nothing to do with justice and everything to do with exploitation of the most disenfranchised of the country.

        Funny how this article brought out the apologists for legalized slave labor.

  7. Jas. Smith
    November 10, 2022 at 10:41

    So we have here literally via Banksy & figuratively via the obtuse text; a dramatic image of some sort of “slavery” in prisons. Is there any relation to reality in the implication? No, there is not.

    In prisons the inmates both need (to earn $) and like to work, as the days are endlessly repetitive and in many “work” situations there is some diverting human interaction. Furthermore though you can force a prisoner to sit in his steel or concrete block box, you cannot “force” a prisoner to do substantive work, because they simply won’t. And, of all the tasks that prisoners do do that keep a prison clean and functioning, from cutting hair to cutting grass, none of them are done under duress or even quickly. Prison work is some of the slowest and least pressured work there is. And finally, though it’s a pittance, they are generally paid.

    So what we have in this article is some sort of pander to disconnected sensibilities that WANT to imagine chain gangs or men with whips standing over rowers at sea. What is wrong with work in jails is that it is dull and relatively fruitless, like a lot of work in the free sector. The voting relates to wording in state documents not reality of some nonexistent slavery. The prison industrial complex is another entirely separate matter.

    • Eddy Schmid
      November 11, 2022 at 02:31

      IMHO, there is nothing wrong with inmates working to actually run the prison, like laundry, cooking, cleaning, planting edible plants and even growing chickens, cows.sheep, goats for meat to sustain the prison and even LEARN something that could assist them to change their lives once they’ve done their time. BUT, for the prison authorities to PROFIT from such labor, is simply slave labor extortion. No two ways about it.

      • Jas. Smith
        November 11, 2022 at 12:22

        Yeah actually there are two ways about it. The empty term, “prison authorities to PROFIT … is slave labor blah blah” is a dog whistle that means nothing. Any work requires tools, supplies, expenditures, administration etc. You are just talking out your keister.

  8. Gary Grass
    November 10, 2022 at 09:45

    While this is certainly positive on a symbolic level, I am curious about how practically important it may also be. What is the prevalence of forced labor in these states, or in the US generally? I deal a lot with the prison system, but I don’t actually even know whether labor in my state’s prisons is forced. It certainly is the norm, and strongly promoted by the need to earn wages to use within the prison and court favor with the prison and legal systems to obtain privileges and transfers, but I could not tell you for certain whether those not working have special exemptions or have simply rejected the norm and opted out.

  9. Rebecca Turner
    November 10, 2022 at 03:31

    Here in the UK’s prison estate, there is no forced labour. Rather, there is a waiting list of men (96% of prisoners are male) for coveted jobs in prisons. There is little else to spend all that pointless time doing except watch TV, or to attend educational classes so that prisoners can have their hopes of getting a job after release somewhat futilely raised. Current rate of pay is about £4. Not per hour, or per day. £4 per week. Over the last few decades there have been numerous well-meaning attempts by politicians to introduce proper working days into prison, as currently it’s only about five hours. These have all failed because prisons are set up to keep men in cells all day, not to bring them to a real workplace like real workers. It is practically impossible to do this without completely revolutionising the very structures of prisons, from staffing to buildings, and too few British people care enough about men in prisons to make this happen.

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