Permitting slavery as punishment for crime is called “indisputably racist”

U.S. Senator Jeff Merkley and Congresswoman Nikema Williams called on Congress to pass the Abolition Amendment, 157 years after the passage of the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery for most Americans but not all.

Merkley was joined by Worth Rises and MoveOn, who presented a petition with over 200,000 signatures from across the country echoing the call.

The exception in the 13th Amendment makes slavery legal “as punishment for a crime,” forcing predominantly black and brown people to work for little to no pay behind prison walls.

The 13th Amendment abolished most—but not all—slavery because it allows force labor “as a punishment for crime.”

The Abolition Amendment would finally finish the job started by the Civil War, Emancipation Proclamation, and 13th Amendment and end the morally reprehensible practice of slavery and forced labor in America, and send a clear message: in this country, no person will be stripped of their basic humanity and forced to toil for someone else’s profit.

The introduction follows a wave of bills introduced in state legislatures across the country to eliminate the Slavery Clause from state constitutions. Three of those states—Utah, Nebraska, and Colorado—referred the measure to their citizens, and large majorities in each case approved the measure, including 80 percent of voters in Utah.

Merkley and the others say it is time to ‘End the Exception’ and abolish slavery for all.

“This country was founded on the beautiful principles of equality and justice—principles that have never been compatible with the horrific realities of slavery and white supremacy,” said Merkley. “The loophole in our Constitution’s ban on slavery not only allowed slavery to continue but launched an era of discrimination and mass incarceration that continues to this day. To live up to our nation’s promise of justice for all, we must eliminate the Slavery Clause from our Constitution. We must pass the Abolition Amendment.”

“In states all over this country, there are people laboring in prison—in Texas, picking cotton at a net loss for the state—because the cruelty is the point. In five states, incarcerated people are not even paid for their labor,” said #EndTheException advocate Dyjuan Tatro, a formerly incarcerated individual. “That is an abomination in the United States of America, and we need to end slavery—fully, finally, and without exception.”

“We must not forget that many still lack the constitutional rights that many of us hold sacred, including our right to be protected from slavery,” said Worth Rises Executive Director Bianca Tylek. “There are currently hundreds of thousands of incarcerated people across the country—disproportionately black and brown—who are forced to work inside prisons and jails for little to no pay under the constant threat of torturous punishment due to the exception in the 13th Amendment that still allows slavery to be used as punishment for crime.”

“This exception has enabled the criminalization, incarceration, and re-enslavement of Black people throughout history,” said Tylek. “And today, it still allows those who work in our nation’s prisons and jails to be exploited by a rigged system—one that was designed to prioritize profit over people. ”

“I hope that people pay attention to the stories of those who have suffered under the exception and that lawmakers move urgently to pass the Abolition Amendment,” said Tylek. “We’re calling on Congress to take action this year. It’s way past due that our nation’s leaders put an unequivocal end to slavery for all. Slavery is wrong, all the time.”

“The fact that prisons in most states are still able to force labor on incarcerated people, oftentimes for the profit of private corporations, is cruel and exploitative. Prison labor is one of the worst aspects of a criminal legal system that dehumanizes millions of people every single day. MoveOn members have been lobbying their members of Congress to end this antiquated, inhumane practice once and for all,” said MoveOn Campaign Manager Arvin Alaigh.

The Slavery Clause incentivized minor criminal convictions and drove the over-incarceration of Black Americans throughout the Jim Crow era, with forced labor on infamous prison plantations like Parchman in Mississippi and Angola in Louisiana.

The corruption of our criminal justice into a system with embedded discrimination fueling mass incarceration has continued through elements of the War on Drugs, the proliferation of the three strike laws, severe plea deals, and harsh mandatory minimum policies—with continued devastating effects on communities of color.

Today’s mass incarceration policies have driven an $80 billion detention industry and a rate of American incarceration that is nothing short of a crisis, with 2.3 million prisoners—20% of the world’s incarcerated population—residing in the United States.

America currently has 1,833 state and 110 federal prisons, in addition to 1,772 juvenile facilities, 3,134 jails, and 218 immigration detention facilities. There are also 80 Tribal jails.

“This effort to pass and ratify the Abolition Amendment joins a proud, centuries-long struggle to bend the arc of America’s Constitution further toward progress,” said Elizabeth Wydra, President, Constitutional Accountability Center. “The work started by Reconstruction is not finished. And by deciding we cannot allow any exception to the prohibition of slavery and involuntary servitude to persist in the Constitution, we stand on the shoulders of giants whose legacies call upon us today to make our union ever more perfect, more equal, more inclusive, and more free.”

“It’s time to end slavery in the United States once and for all. We are grateful for Senator Merkley and Representative Williams’ leadership on this issue, and support their efforts to remove the punishment clause from the U.S. Constitution,” said Amy McGann, Program Director, Human Trafficking Search.

“This change is long overdue. The punishment clause in the 13th amendment is a legacy of slavery that has allowed people incarcerated, disproportionately Black and brown, to be exploited for decades. It is long past time that Congress excise this language from the US Constitution which should begin to put an end the abusive practices derived from it,” said Laura Pitter, Deputy Director of the US Program at Human Rights Watch.

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