On Nov. 8, 2022, four states in the union chose to move this country closer to a nation free of forced labor in every way.
Over 75% of voters in Alabama, Oregon, Tennessee, and Vermont approved legislation that would amend their states’ constitutions to eliminate language that allows slavery and involuntary servitude as a punishment for crime, according to the Sacramento Bee. (Louisiana, a fifth state in this past election that also had this issue on its ballot, voted against banning slavery from its constitution.)
National coordinator for Abolish Slavery National Network, Max Parthas, called this one of the ‘biggest tests’ for the nation.
“(It) was a win for us because it exposed the underbelly of the Jim Crow South and how dependent they are on slave labor,” Parthas told the Bee. “Slavery was legal. These states have never seen a day where slavery was not legal.”
According to the PBS Newshour, Vermont’s constitution no longer has language that allows any form of slavery or involuntary servitude.
In 1777, Vermont was the first state to abolished adult slavery from its constitution for anyone 21 and older unless bound “by law for the payment of debts, fines, costs or the like” or by their own consent.
“We think it shows how forward thinking and good-natured V ermonters a re a nd we’re looking forward to using it as a springboard to do a lot of work on dismantling systemic racism going forward,” said Debbie Ingram, executive director of Vermont Interfaith Action and a former state senator who sponsored the proposal.
Chattel slavery was federally banned in 1865 thanks to the Emancipation Proclamation. However, the bill had a built-in loophole: a person could be subjected to involuntary servitude if convicted of a crime.
California, one of the most progressive states in the union, just recently was presented with the opportunity to amend its constitution by outlawing indentured servitude, but lawmakers failed to get it on the ballot.
The bill, drafted by State Sen. Sydney Kamlager, D-Los Angeles, would have given California voters a chance to make their voices heard on this issue but lawmakers denied them that right because of concerns that prisoners would be paid minimum wage as a result if it passed.
Kamlager, who won a seat in the House of Representatives, told the Bee: “I continue to say (if you) support slavery and involuntary servitude being in the state constitution then you continue to support a racist and Confederate past.” She described involuntary servitude as a “stain” on California’s conscience.
Anti-slavery activists could also point to the Governor’s recent veto of SB1371, a bill that would have increased incarcerated people’s pay for CDCR jobs over a five-year timeline, as a sign that the state is not willing to address the nation’s biggest sin.
According to a report by the PBS Newshour, since the time of the Confederacy, when southern states fought to keep chattel slavery even after the Civil War, lawmakers have being trying to curtail and/or completely eradicate forced labor from the country’s prison system.
In recent years, forced labor in U.S. prisons has become a multibillion-dollar industry; while the people who perform that labor are paid pennies by comparison—if nothing at all.
Refusal to perform any forced labor can result in anything from loss of recreation, phone calls, visits or even sometimes an incarcerated person can be sent to The Hole. It’s not hard to compare these types of punishments to those utilized during the antebellum slavery years, reported PBS Newshour.
“The 13th Amendment didn’t actually abolish slavery—what it did was make it invisible,” Bianca Tylek, an anti-slavery advocate and the executive director of the criminal justice advocacy group Worth Rises, said in an AP interview before Election Day.
She said that passing these types of legislation, particularly in states like Alabama, “is a great signal for what’s possible at the federal level.”
“There is a big opportunity here, in this moment,” Tylek said.