By Mike Ludwig / Truthout
Voters in Vermont, Tennessee, Oregon and Alabama amended their state constitutions to abolish slavery and indentured servitude this week — but a similar initiative failed in Louisiana, garnering embarrassing headlines for a former slave state that remains infamous for modern mass incarceration and forced prison labor.
Louisiana voters rejected an amendment to the state constitution aimed at outlawing slavery and involuntary servitude on Tuesday, underscoring the challenges faced by a growing movement to abolish slave wages and coerced labor inside prisons nationwide. Activists campaigning to end prison slavery say the vote was mired in confusion and misinformation after Rep. Edmond Jordan, a Black Democrat and sponsor of the amendment in the state legislature, advised voters to reject its compromise language and send it back to the drawing board.
However, Amendment 7’s passage would have been at least a symbolic victory for formerly and currently incarcerated organizers in a state known for the Louisiana State Penitentiary, home to the notorious Angola prison farm located on a former antebellum plantation. Activists cite Angola as a well-known example of “modern-day slavery,” although coerced and extremely low-paid prison labor is pervasive far beyond rural Louisiana.
“We knew the amendment didn’t go far enough, but we need to start somewhere,” said Morgan Shannon, director of partnerships at the Power Coalition for Equity and Justice, in an interview. The social justice group is one of several that campaigned in support of the amendment.
Louisiana’s failed Amendment 7 was far from perfect. It would have abolished slavery and involuntary servitude, but with an exception for lawfully administered criminal punishment. The criminal code in Louisiana allows for a convicted person to be sentenced to prison and hard labor, making Amendment 7 no different than the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, which outlaws slavery except as a punishment for crime, according to Norris Henderson, founder of Voice of the Experienced, a New Orleans organization of formerly incarcerated activists.
“It was clear that it was really just semantics, to be honest; it didn’t really change anything … [forced labor] is still ‘cool’ under the guise of a lawfully convicted crime,” Henderson told Truthout in an interview.
For decades, journalists have documented the testimonies of Black prisoners at the Angola prison farm who say they are forced to pick cotton and other crops under the hot sun and watchful eyes of wardens. Curtis Davis, a lead organizer with Decarcerate Louisiana’s effort to pass Amendment 7, was released from Angola in 2016 and vowed to fight back after being punished for refusing to work in miserable conditions.
“I was like, ‘I know my rights, I’m not a slave,’” Davis recently told The Appeal. “And they say, ‘But yes, you are.’”
The national End the Exception campaign, along with activists and incarcerated people across the country, is pushing states remove exceptions for slavery and involuntary servitude modeled off the 13th Amendment from their constitutions. In Louisiana, this exception was exploited to essentially re-enslave Black people, and especially Black men, through criminalization and convict-leasing schemes after the Civil War. At Angola and other prisons, advocates say slavery “never ended” thanks to greed and the exception in the 13th Amendment.
Prison labor remains controversial far beyond Louisiana, with large variations from state to state in working conditions and pay, if prisoners are paid for their labor at all. Prisoners often want to work, especially outside, and wardens use labor as a reward for good behavior. However, some prisoners will earn a dollar or less for an hour of work, and advocates say labor conditions in prisons are inherently coercive. So far, eight states have abolished slavery through their constitutions, accordingto organizers.
In Alabama, where labor and hunger strikes organized within prisonsregularly make national headlines, voters approved an overhaul of the state constitution on Tuesday that removed century-old language allowing involuntary servitude for the punishment of a crime. Vermont approved a ballot amendment banning slavery without exception. In Tennessee, the ballot amendment approved this week bans slavery with a narrower carve-out for prisoners who hold jobs while incarcerated. In Oregon, involuntary servitude is no longer a legal criminal punishment, but a judge can still order “education, counseling, treatment, community service, or other alternatives to incarceration.”
After years of activism around prison slavery, Representative Jordan introduced the original language for Amendment 7 to the Louisiana legislature in 2021. Any constitutional amendment put to voters in Louisiana must be approved by a supermajority of lawmakers. However, in order to gain support of the Republican-dominated legislature and place it on the ballot, the exception for criminal punishment was added as a compromise. Henderson said the compromise was struck without consultation with activists, and Jordan backed away from the amendment before the election, telling voters the final ballot language was “confusing.”
Bianca Tylek, executive director of Worth Rises, an advocacy nonprofit dedicated to dismantling the prison industry, said it was “wildly inappropriate” for Jordan to abandon a ballot initiative supported by thousands of advocates and people living behind bars. Tylek doesn’t understand why Jordan decided to turn against his own amendment and suspects foul political play.
“It doesn’t make sense, what he did,” Tylek said in an interview. “The ballot initiative, at worst, wouldn’t change anything, but at best, it would end slavery … it’s not going to make things worse.”
Without the exception for lawful criminal punishment, legal challenges to controversial prison labor programs in Louisiana filed by activists, competing industries and prisoners themselves were likely inevitable. Jordan and other proponents said they worried the compromise language could actually be used to expand prison slavery depending on how courts ruled, and citing widespread “confusion,” Jordan asked voters for a chance to improve the language in the coming years.
Tylek, an attorney, said it was “completely illogical” to tell voters to reject an amendment because the ballot language is confusing. Ballot language is often confusing to read. Courts in Louisiana and across the country are bound to consider challenges to prison labor programs based on claims that they run on slave labor, especially as more state remove involuntary servitude from their constitutions, Tylek said. That leaves a number of questions up to the courts.
“What we’re talking about here is ending slavery, and the question the courts will someday have to address is what that means,” Tylek said.
For example, is punishing a human being with solitary confinement for refusing to work legally considered slavery? What about paying them cents on the dollar for an hour of work? Tylek says cases hanging on such questions will eventually be litigated in every state and may one day reach the Supreme Court. Wardens and lucrative, privatized prison industries that rely on prison labor will undoubtably argue that their “work programs” do not constitute slavery, Tylek said, but it should be up to the courts, the public and incarcerated people to decide.
However, Henderson said he is not encouraged by the right-wing legislature in Louisiana. Voters rely on the legislature in the state to approve ballot initiatives that would amend the constitution, a system that critics say is structured to uphold austerity and white supremacy. In Louisiana, where monuments commemorating Reconstruction-era massacres of Black people are still standing in some places, white supremacy may have changed its image over time, but it never went away.
“This train may have left the station, because here, aside from other places, we don’t have the ability to put something on the ballot,” Henderson said. “I just think it is going to be an uphill climb to get this back on the ballot, you know?”