House and Senate Democrats Propose Change to 13th Amendment, Ending Slave Labor in Prisons

By Shani Saxon Dec 03, 2020

Democratic lawmakers proposed a joint resolution on Wednesday (December 2) aiming to remove language from the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The 13th Amendment, which abolished chattel slavery in America, did so with the exception of one group—"convicted felons"—which is why many liken mass incarceration to enslavement.

The Associated Press reports that House and Senate Democrats spearheaded the resolution, which “would amend the 13th Amendment’s ban on chattel enslavement to expressly prohibit involuntary servitude as a punishment for crime."

Reports The AP:

Many Americans will recognize modern-day prison labor as chain gangs deployed from prison facilities for agricultural and infrastructure work. The prevalence of prison labor has been largely accepted as a means for promoting rehabilitation, teaching trade skills and reducing idleness among prisoners.

But the practice has a much darker history. Following the abolition of slavery, Southern states that lost the literal backbone of their economies began criminalizing formerly enslaved Black men and women for offenses as petty as vagrancy or having unkempt children.

This allowed legal re-enslavement of African Americans, who were no longer seen as sympathetic victims of inhumane bondage, said Michele Goodwin, a constitutional law professor at the University of California, Irvine.

Rep. William Lacy Clay (D-Missouri), who led the House version of the resolution, told The AP that the amendment “seeks to finish the job that President (Abraham) Lincoln started.” It would “eliminate the dehumanizing and discriminatory forced labor of prisoners for profit that has been used to drive the over-incarceration of African Americans since the end of the Civil War,” he added.

According to the AP, resolution co-sponsors include Sens. Bernie Sanders (D-Vt.) Ed Markey (D-Mass.) and Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) “This change to the 13th Amendment will finally, fully rid our nation of a form of legalized slavery,” Van Hollen said in a statement.

“It is long past time that Congress excise this language from the U.S. Constitution which should begin to put an end to the abusive practices derived from it,” Laura Pitter, deputy director of the U.S. program at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement to The AP. More than a dozen human rights and social justice organizations, including Human Rights Watch, The Sentencing Project, the Anti-Recidivism Coalition and Color of Change have endorsed the resolution.

Senator Markey stressed that this shift towards a federal amendment is “kind of saying to the world, let’s not forget this big piece of injustice that’s sitting squarely in the middle of our Constitution, as we wrestle with criminal justice reform.”

The AP noted that this resolution would have an impact on incarcerated Americans, who presently make pennies on the dollar. It reports:

Researchers have estimated the minimum annual value of prison labor commodities at $2 billion, derived largely through a system of convict leasing that leaves these workers without the legal protections and benefits that Americans are otherwise entitled to.

Constitutional amendments are typically very difficult to execute, requiring “approval by two-thirds of the House and Senate, as well as ratification by three-quarters of state legislatures,” The AP reports. Senator Merkley said he hopes to revive this resolution next year should it fail to move out of committee during the final few weeks of the current Congress.