Lawmakers unveil anti-slavery constitutional amendment
NEW YORK— National lawmakers introduced a joint resolution Wednesday aimed at striking language from the U.S. Constitution that enshrines a form of slavery in America’s foundational documents.
The resolution, spearheaded and supported by Democratic members of the House and the Senate, would amend the 13th Amendment’s ban on chattel enslavement to expressly prohibit involuntary servitude as a punishment for crime. As ratified, the original amendment has permitted exploitation of labor by convicted felons for more than 155 years since the abolition of slavery.
The 13th Amendment “continued the process of a white power class gravely mistreating Black Americans, creating generations of poverty, the breakup of families and this wave of mass incarceration that we still wrestle with today,” Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., told The Associated Press ahead of the resolution’s introduction.
A House version is led by outgoing Rep. William Lacy Clay, D-Mo., who said the amendment “seeks to finish the job that President [Abraham] Lincoln started.”
It would “eliminate the dehumanizing and discriminatory forced labor of prisoners for profit that has been used to drive the over-incarceration of African Americans since the end of the Civil War,” Clay said.
In the Senate, the resolution has Sens. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, Ed Markey of Massachusetts and Chris Van Hollen of Maryland signed on as co-sponsors.
Constitutional amendments are rare and require approval by twothirds of the House and Senate, as well as ratification by three-quarters of state legislatures. Should the proposal fail to move out of committee in the remaining weeks of the current Congress, Merkley said he would hope to revive it next year.
The proposed amendment comes nearly one month after voters in Nebraska and Utah approved initiatives amending their state constitutions to remove language that allows slavery and involuntary servitude as criminal punishments. In 2018, Colorado was among the first U.S. states to remove such language by ballot measure.
Although nearly half of state constitutions do not mention human bondage or prison labor as punishment, more than 20 states still include such clauses in governing documents that date back to the 19th-century abolition of slavery.
Today, incarcerated workers — many of them making pennies on the dollar — work in plants, manufacturing clothing and assembling furniture, and even battle wildfires across the U.S., much of it to the benefit of large corporations, governments and communities where they have historically been unwelcome upon release.
Researchers have estimated the minimum annual value of prison labor commodities at $2 billion, derived largely through a system of convict leasing that leaves these workers without the legal protections and benefits that Americans are otherwise entitled to.