It’s been 157 years since USA prohibited slavery, understood as the act by which one person is the legal property of another.
However, there is an exemption for convicted prisoners.
In most of the US, slavery is still legal as punishment for a crime.
But on November 8, voters in five states (Alabama, Louisiana, Oregon, Tennessee, and Vermont) will decide whether to remove these exemptions from their state constitutions in an effort to outlaw slavery altogether.
The result could allow prisoners to stop being subjected to forced labor.
Some 800,000 inmates currently work for pennies, or for nothing at all.
Seven states do not pay prisoner workers any wages for most job assignments.
Supporters of the change say it is a loophole that allows for exploitation and must be ended.
But critics argue that removing that exemption is not affordable and could have unintended consequences for the criminal justice system.
“I worked for 25 years and came home with $124”
The modern system has its roots in centuries of slavery for African-Americans, human rights researchers say.
In the years following the ban on slavery, laws were passed specifically aimed at suppressing black communities, forcing them into prisons where they would be required to work.
Nowadays, some incarcerated black Americans are still forced to pick cotton and other crops in the southern plantations where their ancestors were chained.
“The United States of America never had a day without codified slavery”says Curtis Ray Davis II, who spent more than 25 years serving hard labor in a Louisiana prison for a murder he didn’t commit, before being pardoned in 2019.
Davis held a variety of jobs at the Louisiana State Penitentiary — nicknamed “Angola” after the country from which many of the African slaves were brought to that area.
“I worked for 25 years and came home with $124,” describes Davis, who has never been paid more than 20 cents an hour for his work. It was “against my will and at gunpoint,” she says.
About 75% of the inmates at the penitentiary are black, according to the Innocence Project, a group that works to exonerate wrongfully convicted inmates.
They argue that “Angola” is essentially a place where american slavery never ended.
“Although slavery was abolished, it was really just a transfer of ownership from private slavery to, literally, state-sanctioned slavery,” says Savannah Eldrige of the National Abolish Slavery Network.
His organization has been working to expand the number of states that ban slavery without exception, and has tried to persuade Washington lawmakers to pass a similar law to amend the US Constitution.
Colorado, Nebraska and Utah have passed measures banning all forms of slavery since 2018.
Eldrige points out that the move garnered bipartisan support, the only way it could pass in Republican-dominated Utah and Nebraska.
In 2023, he predicts that 18 state legislatures will vote on legislation to outlaw slavery.
Few opponents have spoken out against efforts by states to eliminate the language of slavery.
The move met with some resistance from critics who say it would be too costly to pay prisoners proper wagesthat they do not deserve the same compensation, or that the changes could harm the same inmates.
A vote in the California legislature to remove references to slavery from the law failed this year after Democrats, including the governor, warned that paying inmates the state minimum wage of $15 an hour would cost more than $1,500. millions.
The Oregon Sheriffs Association also opposes the measure in that state, arguing that it would lead to “unintended consequences” and the loss of all “re-entry programs,” which include low-paying jobs like working in the library, cooking and the laundry.
The group says they give the prisoners something to do and “serves as an incentive for good behavior”which is a factor during parole hearings.
According to them, there are two problems with the measure: that it only applies to the convicted, leaving out people in pretrial detention, and that it could mean the end of any prison program not specifically authorized by a court ruling.
“The Oregon sheriffs do not condone or support slavery and/or involuntary servitude in any form,” the association assures voters in a pamphlet, but adds that passage of the measure “will result in the elimination of all programs reentry and increased costs for local prison operations.
Inmates contribute to the supply chain and the economy in many ways, some of which are amazing.
They have been commissioned to make everything from eyeglasses, to license plates, to city park benches.
They process beef, milk and cheese and work in call support centers for government agencies and major companies.
It can be difficult to track which companies used prison labor, as the work is usually done for a subcontractor.
The subcontractor then sells the products and services to large companies. that sometimes they do not know their origin.
Companies that previously benefited from prison labor in Utah alone include American Express, Apple, Pepsi-Co and FedEx, according to a June report by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).
At least 30 states include prison workers in their emergency operation plans for natural disasters and other civil disturbances.
They fight wildfires in at least 14 states, according to the ACLU report.
“Necessary but not sufficient”
Nevertheless, prisoners’ lives are unlikely to change overnight if the five states with upcoming votes support a change.
“These referendums are necessary but not sufficient to end slavery,” says Jennifer Turner, a human rights researcher for the ACLU.
Courts would still have to interpret what rights jailed workers have and whether they will get benefits, such as sick leave.
In states that previously eliminated the exemption for this type of slavery there were mixed results.
In Colorado, a prisoner sued the state, arguing that the ban on slavery was being violated.
But a court ruled in August that voters did not intend to abolish all prison labor and dismissed the case.
A jail in Nebraska began paying inmates between $20 and $30 a week after the exemption there was removed, according to the newspaper. The New York Times.
More lawsuits are expected as inmates continue to push for rights and protections.
Davis, who was mistakenly imprisoned in Louisiana, says removing the slavery exemption for prisoners will remove an “incentive” for his home state to jail its citizens.
“I think any conscientious person who understands property law knows that Human beings should not be owned by other people”he tells the BBC.
“And they shouldn’t be owned by the state of Louisiana.”