Slavery Is Still Legal in Louisiana

Louisiana State Penitentiary_Louisiana_Entrance” by is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Louisiana House Bill 196, which was an amendment that would have prohibited slavery and involuntary servitude in Louisiana, was killed by the House Committee on Civil Law and Procedure last week. 

Currently, according to the state’s constitution, “Slavery and involuntary servitude are prohibited, except in the latter case as punishment for a crime.” Representative Edmond Jordan, who wrote the proposed amendment, would have put a period after “prohibited,” fully outlawing slavery. 

When he first filed the bill, Jordan was not optimistic it would pass. “Anyone of good conscience should be embarrassed by this … should be appalled by this … should want to see this go away,” Jordan said. “But I’m not a fool to think that everybody is of good conscience. I’m sure for as easy as a lift as this should be, that some will make up reasons to oppose it.”

Jordan’s predictions were correct, with the nine Republicans on the Louisiana House Committee on Civil Law and Procedure coming up with reasons to oppose the legislation, while simultaneously having the gall to verbally clarify that their defense of slavery in Louisiana’s constitution doesn’t mean they are pro-slavery. They have apparently never heard the phrase “actions speak louder than words” because there is no action more pro-slavery than voting to keep it legal. 

Rather, they said they feared that removing the slavery exception could be “dangerous” resulting in some negative consequence that is somehow worse than legal slavery. 

“I think this might be one of the most dangerous bills we’ve seen this session,” commented Representative Alan Seabaugh. “I’m afraid this (bill) might open the door to some legal challenges of every felony conviction in Louisiana. And that’s just not a can of worms I’m willing to open.”

Jordan replied, “There are a host of states that don’t have this language in their constitution, and they’re imprisoning people just fine.” Rhode Island, Colorado, Nebraska, and Utah have abolished all forms of slavery, and dozens of other states are considering similar legislation. 

“All you’re trying to do is to prohibit slavery and indentured servitude… you’re not trying to get every felon released from prison,” commented Representative Ed Larvadain III

Opponents also said Louisiana’s exception for “involuntary servitude” is consistent with the exception found in the Thirteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. This exception states that slavery is illegal “except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.” Marie Harmon, an advocate with Decarcerate Louisiana clarified, “It is a slavery exception clause.” 

Involuntary servitude, which is just a euphemism for slavery, is being forced to work for the benefit of another party. The party benefiting in this situation is The Louisiana Department of Correction’s which brought in over $9.8 million in 2019 from its factories and workshops, in which it pays its “workers” close to nothing. 

People imprisoned by the state of Louisiana make as little as 2 cents an hour, with the highest earners making only around 75 cents an hour.

After two decades of back-breaking work in inhumane conditions, Curtis Ray Davis II, executive director of Decarcerate Louisiana received only $1,200. “I spent 25 years in slavery. It was traumatizing, it was painful, physically and mentally. I felt sub-human, demeaned, socially dead,” said Davis. “I just don’t believe that Louisiana and the United States should be in the business of legalized slavery.”

Davis spoke of his experience “as a slave” in the Louisiana Penitentiary at Angola at the bill’s hearing. “I didn’t have the same level of rights and human decency as another human being.” He harvested crops like cotton and okra at Angola under terrible conditions. “This is beneath human decency to have to squat out in the field like an animal and defecate.” 

Louisiana uses its 32,000-person prison, which is mostly Black people, for a wide range of tasks, from cleaning government buildings to harvesting crops, to producing products like mops and furniture. All of them are barely paid, over-worked, and treated as less than human. 

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