Why is Slavery on the Ballot?

Here’s Why I am Voting “NO” on Constitutional Amendment 7 Tribune Editor Anitra Brown If you haven’t heard already, there is a constitutional amendment on the Nov. 8 ballot about […]

Why is Slavery on the Ballot?

Here’s Why I am Voting “NO” on Constitutional Amendment 7

Tribune Editor Anitra Brown

If you haven’t heard already, there is a constitutional amendment on the Nov. 8 ballot about slavery and involuntary servitude.

Specifically, the ballot language 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?

And if it passes, it would replace the language in the Louisiana Constitution that currently reads: “Slavery and involuntary servitude are prohibited, except in the latter case as punishment for crime.”

Are you utterly confused? You are in good company. I consider myself knowledgeable, mentally acute, able to reason and apply logic. Still, I had to tap a mind more well-versed in issues of the law and criminal justice than my own.

My gut reaction is that with or without a constitutional amendment, we are not going back! So what’s the point! I needed someone to tell me in plain English why slavery is on a ballot in 2022.

Enter Will Snowden, executive director of the Vera Institute of Justice, who explained that this amendment is a part of a larger national movement to eliminate the exception to the 13th Amendment that reads: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”

It’s  a movement . . . and a hashtag. #EndtheException.

The goal of #EndtheException is to make involuntary servitude and slavery illegal without any caveats. More than anything, it is about reforming the prison labor system as a way to combat mass incarceration.

It sounds righteous enough on its face. The federal government has not amended 13, it probably never will. But at least four states — Colorado, Utah, Nebraska and Rhode Island — have constitutional wording that prohibits slavery without exception.

And that is what the Louisiana legislator who originally proposed the bill intended. State Rep. Edmond Jordan, a Baton Rouge Democrat sponsored House Bill 196 in 2021 to remove the exception to involuntary servitude from the state’s constitution. His proposal did not even make it out of committee in 2021.

When state Rep. Jordan tried it again in 2022, a last minute amendment to his bill to include the language “except in the latter case as punishment for crime” was added, convoluting the bill so much so that even reform-minded Jordan is urging voters to reject the amendment. No doubt, the language was added by or at the behest of House Republicans who had previously refused to pass any bill that eliminated the exception to the prohibition of slavery or involuntary servitude in the state constitution.

Both Will Snowden and I fear that the language is so vague that it has the potential to expand conditions under which slavery and involuntarily servitude might be applied.

Uh . . . what exactly is the “otherwise lawful administration of criminal justice”?

Is it imprisonment? What about parole—is not parole the lawful administration of criminal justice? So is probation. What about deferred adjudication? Wouldn’t individuals awaiting or on trial—those charged, but not yet convicted of any crime— be in the very midst of a process that could be considered the “otherwise lawful administration of criminal justice”? I am asking for a friend.

Seriously, though, do you see what I mean by vague and alarmingly broad?

Perhaps there are those who would suggest that I am reading too much into this, that there is no way this amendment, even written as is, would be so widely interpreted or applied. They would say, “Oh, Anitra, there is nothing about which to worry.”

Well, when someone tells me not to worry . . . I automatically start to worry.

And another thing, it should be noted that even in states where the exception has been completely eliminated with no caveats, little has changed in the way of prison work rules. In short, these legislative efforts brought before voters as referendums, though seemingly noteworthy, have amounted to little more than symbolic gestures in lieu of real efforts aimed at prison reform in America. I do despise symbolism that does not come with real change.

To be sure, there needs to be real change in America’s prison industrial complex and real change in prison labor reform. And the work is too serious for useless amendments that do not achieve the desired outcome.

The Business of Prison Labor and Mass Incarceration

U.S. prisoners produce $11 billion in goods and services annually, according to a report by the American Civil Liberties Union.

Let me put this another way. If U.S. prison labor were a nation, it would have a GDP higher than 55 of the 196 countries whose GDPs are published by the World Bank – higher than Guinea, Guam, Aruba, Belize, American Samoa, Sierre Leone, Barbados and 48 other countries.

Prison labor in the United States produces $11 billion in goods and services annually, and the incarcerated men and women who toil to that end don’t even earn the paltry $7.25 an hour federal minimum wage. One estimate by the #EndtheException campaign tells that prison laborers work the equivelant of what would amount to $14 billion a year in wages. Of course, they don’t receive that—what they earn is literally pennies.

Inmates across America are paid somewhere between two cents and 52 cents an hour, according to the ACLU; and that applies only to those who earn any wage at all for their prison work assignments. That’s right, some do not get anything.

Most prison laborers—about 80 percent—work to offset the costs of operating the prison itself. They clean, they cook, they do laundry, or maintain the grounds at the prison where they are confined, the ACLU reports.

Another eight percent of prison laborers are used to fulfill public works projects. They do road work, help construct buildings, clean landfills, do forestry work. In some instances, they are even deployed in the aftermath of natural disasters and emergencies.

Another 6.5 percent of prison workers are assigned to state-owned entities that make products or provide services that are sold to other state entities and agencies. In Louisiana, that can include office furniture, janitorial products, license plates.

Additionally, less than one percent of prison workers are hired out to private businesses. Those are the ones that make the most — a whopping 86 cents an hour, according to the #EndtheException. And their labor also enriches the prison system the most. They are hired out — much in the same way enslaved people were hired out by plantation owners or allowed to work for pay one day a week and then forced to give part (if not all of what they earned) to the slaveholder. While the private companies are paying far less than what they would pay workers in the market place, those who own and/operate the prisons take in way more than the pennies they pass on to the incarcerated.

Meanwhile, prison laborers work without the protection provided by labor laws, in unsafe conditions, and with little or no formal training for the jobs they perform. And when they are released, it remains enormously difficult for the formerly incarcerated to find gainful employment – even those who have undertaken dangerous and admirable jobs as prisoners.

For instance, in California, some prisoners risk their lives for less than $3 a day to fight wildfires. In addition to woefully inadequate pay for such a risky task, they receive about two weeks of training. Up until September of 2020, former inmate-firefighters were unable to get the certification needed to become firefighters after release. And while a new law now allows them to petition the court to erase their records, which could at least create a path for them to get certified, the expungement is still not automatic. It’s up to a judge.

Let’s face it — making prisoners work or even offering special volunteer and training opportunities, such as the case of inmate-firefighters in California, is not about rehabilitation, reducing recidivism or providing useful training and skills. It is about their cheap or sometimes free labor that increases profit margins and/or reduces the operating costs of running a prison or some other state function.

Prison labor is cheap, profitable and benefits everyone involved except the prisoner and his or her family. That’s it, that’s all, that’s everything. Why else would private corporations get into the prison business?

Prison laborers don’t earn enough money to regularly make a phone call home or make commissary. They often rely on family members to send money to buy commissary food, clothing, hygiene items or stamps, envelopes, pencils and pads to write home.

And if you don’t care about what prisoners eat or whether they have decent shoes on their feet or a jacket in the winter, then consider this: They work inside prisons, in fields, on roadways, in raging forest fires, performing sweat-of-the-brow labor and do not earn enough money to regularly purchase soap or deodorant without turning to their families whose finances are often already strained because their loved one is imprisoned. It is undignified treatment — even of those convicted of crimes —  to work and sweat and still be unable to buy basic items needed to clean their bodies without money from a family member who already having to decide whether to buy food and pay the electric bill on poverty wages.

By the way, prison phone calls and commissary purchases are another nearly $3 billion a year industry. This prison industrial complex is crippling poor, mostly Black and Brown communities coming and going.

So while ending the exception sounds good, actually reforming what prison labor looks like in the richest country in the world would be so much better.

Humor Me

Let’s re-imagine that prisoners with work assignments of any sort were guaranteed at least $7.25 an hour for a 40-hour work week. That’s $290 a week. Of course, $7.25 an hour is still deplorable. But I will concede that for prisoners it would be better than the pennies most currently earn.

I will also be realistic. If prisoners earned $7.25 an hour, the government would surely take its cut. Now we are at $260 a week after taxes for every prisoner fulfilling a 40-hour a week work assignment. Now let’s say that half of those wages are absorbed by the prison for operational costs. Look, it’s prison, and those who operate them are already benefiting from prison labor by taking a cut of the wages earned by prisoners, particularly those assigned to private businesses. If incarcerated men and women were allowed to earn anything that looks like money, the slave master would surely devise a rule to keep some portion of it. I’ll beat them to the punch and offer 50 percent off top. That still leaves each prison laborer with $130 a week—a net annual earnings of $6,760—not much at all, but still money they could use for prison commissary and to stay connected with their family through phone calls and letters without burdening their families—many of which are already teetering on the wrong side of the poverty line.

And another thing . . . if it’s not clear, I am saying vote “NO” on constitutional amendment 7.  If the state legislature wants to make a symbolic gesture, it should at least get the language right and send us a one that does not have the potential to expand the conditions in which involuntary servitude is legal . . . I guess I can help the Louisiana legislature write a constitutional amendment that actually makes sense. 

It reads: Slavery and involuntary servitude are prohibited . . . PERIOD

Why do I keep talking about the overburdened, impoverished families of the incarcerated? Because mass incarceration and poverty are linked in more ways than one. In one study, scholars at Villanova University concluded that mass incarceration has increased the U.S. poverty rate by at least 20 percent. Another study suggests that a family’s probability of being poor increases by 40 percent if the father is imprisoned. Yet another study by the Brookings Institute that examined work and opportunity before and after mass incarceration found that three years prior to their incarceration, only 49 percent of working age men were employed and when employed their median earnings were under $6,250. And only 13 percent earned more than $15,000 annually. In other words, the fact that inequity, poverty, unemployment and underemployment along with racial disparities in healthcare, mental illness treatment, education and housing are underlying issues that feed mass incarceration cannot be overstated.

I digress—back to my stab at tackling prison labor reform.

Where were we? Oh yeah, if you are in prison and you work, you get paid – at least the federal minimum wage, which comes to $15,080 a year. That’s an annual gross payroll of about $30.1 billion for the roughly two million people in federal and state prisons and local jails in America. But at least then, we would have a system where prisoners could access necessities without adding further financial stress to loved ones, and one where they are actually paid for their work. That would end slavery as it exists in America today.

In other words, let’s end slavery and involuntary servitude by simply paying the modern-day enslaved – the incarcerated people that work while imprisoned – a real wage.

Somehow, though, I am betting that if state and federal prisons and local jails had to pay every soul locked behind bars at least $7.25 an hour for their labor, mass incarceration in these United States would quickly become a thing of the past. Locking up people who are mentally ill, who struggle with addiction, who can’t pay fines and fees, locking up anyone except the most hardened, violent criminals who are truly a threat to society would start to make a lot less sense and happen with a lot less frequency. Mandatory minimums would disappear. Three-strike rules would vanish. Jail time for petty crimes and low-level drug offenses would be distant memories. Unattached to the bonus of free prison labor, the nation’s prison population would shrink exponentially.

Did I just solve America’s mass incarceration problem in one column? Thank me later.

Or we could just pass vague, toothless constitutional amendments.

And another thing . . . if it’s not clear, I am saying vote “NO” on constitutional amendment 7.

If the state legislature wants to make a symbolic gesture, it should at least get the language right and send us a one that does not have the potential to expand the conditions in which involuntary servitude is legal.

Now that I have solved the prison labor reform issue, I guess I can help the Louisiana legislature write a constitutional amendment that actually makes sense.

It reads: Slavery and involuntary servitude are prohibited . . . PERIOD