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Democrats lobby to amend 13th Amendment and end prison slavery

Senator Jeff Merkley of Oregon and Representative William Lacy Clay have introduced a joint resolution to remove the 13th Amendment's "punishment clause."

Democrats lobby to amend 13th Amendment and end prison slavery
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Though the United States may have abolished slavery several decades ago, slavery is still legal within the prison system. Democrats in Congress want to change that. By amending a section of the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery, they hope to end forced prison labor. Introducing a joint resolution, Senator Jeff Merkley of Oregon and Representative William Lacy Clay of Missouri will remove the 13th Amendment's "punishment clause," CNN reports. This clause and other language within the amendment essentially exempt convicted prisoners from the ban on slavery and involuntary servitude. The "Abolition Amendment" will finish former President Abraham Lincoln's mission to end slavery, Democrats argue.


Representative Clay affirmed in a statement, "Our 'Abolition Amendment' seeks to [end] the punishment clause in the 13th Amendment to 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." The 13th Amendment, ratified in 1865, made slavery illegal "except as punishment for a crime of which one has been convicted." The lawmakers' resolution would strike that clause from the amendment, ending forced labor among prisoners. Work programs for prisoners would continue only on a voluntary basis.


The two Congressmen declared the clause "indisputably racist in origin and in impact." This is because the South relied heavily on slave labor to fuel its economy in the 19th century; the amendment was thus utilized as a loophole to permit the forced labor of Black Americans who were imprisoned. The "punishment clause" resulted in a disproportionate rate of arrests among Black folks throughout the Jim Crow era to the War on Drugs in the 1980s due to, as the Congressmen argued, a "financial incentive for mass incarceration." Prison labor is a highly lucrative industry even today.


In July, a report by NPR revealed that as of the last federal count in 2005, over 1.5 million prisoners were working. Additionally, UNICOR, a federal prison labor program, generates over $500 million in revenue annually. Clay and Merkley believe that this practice exploits prison laborers as prisons, particularly those in the South, do not pay their prisons for the labor they perform. If prisoners are paid, the high end of their wages for regular prison jobs rarely exceed $1, as per the Prison Policy institute.


Unfortunately, some believe the Abolition Amendment is unlikely to succeed. Such is the opinion of Avi Soifer, a professor and former Dean of the University of Hawaii at Manoa's Richardson School of Law. The institution of "partial remedies," he believes would be more beneficial. Examples of a partial remedies approach include the federal statute that outlaws both voluntary and involuntary peonage, a type of servitude by which people who owe debts work until those debts are paid. He said, "It thus could have immediate relevance in efforts to address the terrible ways that we now treat prisoners and those jailed because they are unable to make bail." Nonetheless, the bill has been co-sponsored by Senators Bernie Sanders and Ed Markey, among others. It has also gained the support of social justice organizations such as Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and Color of Change.


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