Voters in 5 states to decide in November whether to abolish forced prison labor

Five states — Alabama, Louisiana, Oregon, Tennessee, and Vermont — will vote in the November midterm elections on whether or not to remove the punishment clause from their state constitutions.

Video transcript

KRYSTA BISNAUTH: People tend to think of slavery as a thing of the past.

BIANCA TYLEK: The Thirteenth Amendment passed in 1865, and it's thought to have abolished slavery, but what many don't know is that it actually includes an exception clause, and that exception clause allows for slavery to be used as punishment for a crime.


- More than 150 years after it was outlawed the Tennessee Constitution still allows slavery and involuntary servitude as forms of criminal punishment. Now, this November, voters have the power to finally take that provision out.

KRYSTA BISNAUTH: So there are these five states with the issue on their ballots, but there's also a federal move to remove what's called the "punishment clause" from the Thirteenth Amendment of the US Constitution.

BIANCA TYLEK: And this year, we are seeing Oregon, Vermont, Tennessee, Louisiana, Alabama all pursue this issue on the 2022 ballot. In reality, slavery has not actually been abolished for all. Slavery is still very much real and thriving in our communities, but specifically behind prison walls. Slavery behind prison walls comes in a lot of different forms, but one thing that is pretty similar in every situation is that it's absolutely forced labor.

- And prison slavery doesn't just look like incarcerated people in the South being forced to pick cotton. It's also incarcerated people in California fighting wildfires, or in New York, making hand sanitizer during the pandemic.

KRYSTA BISNAUTH: And these are people, some of whom are going to one day reenter society, and they will have been made perhaps even more vulnerable to other forms of forced labor when they leave the prison system.

BIANCA TYLEK: Unfortunately, passing any amendment does not necessarily mean that the rights conveyed by that amendment to the US Constitution are automatically conferred on the people that they're intended to protect.

KRYSTA BISNAUTH: Things would not automatically change, unfortunately, but what it would do is open the door to take cases to court and to say that, look, this is illegal in our state, you can't do this anymore.

BIANCA TYLEK: There are actually three states that have already ended the exception in their state constitutions, Colorado, Utah, and Nebraska. Colorado passed in 2018, Utah and Nebraska passed in 2020. We are absolutely optimistic that these states will in fact pass their ballot initiatives, and they will join the three states that have already done so.

KRYSTA BISNAUTH: What they're choosing is whether they want to live in a country that has fully outlawed slavery or not.