This November, voters in five states will decide whether to remove sections from their state constitutions that permit the use of prisoner punishment as a form of slavery.
Nearly 20 states still include this wording in their constitutions, including Tennessee, Alabama, Louisiana, Oregon, and Vermont. According to The Associated Press, the vote to repeal it is part of a national movement to amend the 13th Amendment, which outlawed slavery except as a form of punishment for crimes.
Colorado, Nebraska, and Utah were the first states to strike the provision from their state constitutions.
According to Stateline, a project of The Pew Charitable Trusts, since slavery was abolished in the United States in 1865, a number of supporters have pushed for a change in the legislation and to make working in jail voluntary.
According to The Washington Post, if approved, the proposal would alter the rules governing prison labour and inmate compensation. Since its inception, prison labour has been under fire for its racist roots, the disproportionate number of Black prisoners, the low pay, and the punishment meted out to those who refuse to work.
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Inmates who have refused to work have been put in solitary confinement or have had their visits, phone calls, or meal times cut back.
The question of whether or not eliminating the exemption would actually result in major changes has also been disputed. According to Stateline, many people consider the symbolism to be equally significant due to the history of jail labour.
The exclusion in the amendment permitted for the 19th-century imprisonment and forced labour of Black people for very minor offences.
A former prisoner told Stateline, “If this amendment passes, then the incentive to imprison Black people will no longer exist.”
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