Slavery Is Still Alive in Louisiana – Voters Could Change That This Year

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Although the United States officially outlawed slavery more than 150 years ago, that hasn’t stopped the practice from continuing; albeit limited to state prison systems. This year, voters in Louisiana join Alabama, Oregon, Tennessee, and Vermont in an attempt to change that practice.

Within the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution is an “exception clause” loophole that allows those who are convicted of a crime to perform manual labor as punishment. In today’s for-profit prison system, that often means that prisoners work for pennies while the companies who run the prisons earn millions. For example, this report from the ACLU shows that prisoners in Louisiana State Penitentiary – 74 percent of whom are Black – earn only $0.02 cents for every hour of labor working in the prison’s wheat, corn, soybean, cotton, and milo fields. To make matters worse, those who aren’t willing or able to perform work quickly enough are further punished with segregation.

“In the field, each inmate is given a number to a row of crops to be cultivated or pulled and bagged which is about half a mile,” one prisoner told the ACLU. “The gun guard on the horse said she wanted 30 sacks of greens and was keeping count. I was on sack 23 before the specified time and was transported to segregation.”

“We want to remove offensive language and provide protection for citizens from slavery and involuntary servitude,” Max Parthas, co-director of state operations of the Abolish Slavery National Network and co-host of a weekly online radio program, Abolition Today, said in an interview.

A Purely Symbolic Move?

While there has been some debate regarding whether approving amendments to state constitutions would result in any real change to the prison system, advocates say that these amendments are more than just symbolic – they are necessary. In Louisiana, the ballot question reads: “Do you support an amendment to prohibit the use of involuntary servitude except as it applies to the otherwise lawful administration of criminal justice?” The wording of the question seems to imply that the language of the question would do little to change what is already in place in the state, and some legislators have argued that it could actually make things worse.

“The new amendment technically allows slavery,” said Republican Rep. Alan Seabaugh. “I don’t think anybody thought of it that way, but that’s what it says.” Seabaugh opposed the measure in committee. However, advocates of the measure disagree.

“This is the crown jewel of criminal justice reform,” said Curtis Ray Davis II, who served 25 years for second-degree murder in the Louisiana State Penitentiary known as Angola and is campaigning for the amendment in Louisiana. “If this amendment passes, then the incentive to incarcerate Black people will no longer exist.”

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