How Lawmakers Want To End Forced Prison Labor & “Finally Abolish Slavery”

Democrats want to amend the “Punishment Clause” of the 13th Amendment, which they say has “continued to drive the over-incarceration of Black Americans throughout the Jim Crow era.”

In this Dec. 11, 2007, file photo, members of the Maricopa County DUI chain gang are escorted to their assignment in Phoenix. National lawmakers are expected on Wednesday, Dec. 2, 2020, to introduce a joint resolution aimed at striking language from the U.S. Constitution that enshrines a form of slavery in America’s foundational documents. Many Americans will recognize modern-day prison labor as chain gangs deployed from prison facilities for agricultural and infrastructure work. | AP
In this Dec. 11, 2007, file photo, members of the Maricopa County DUI chain gang are escorted to their assignment in Phoenix. National lawmakers are expected on Wednesday, Dec. 2, 2020, to introduce a joint resolution aimed at striking language from the U.S. Constitution that enshrines a form of slavery in America’s foundational documents. Many Americans will recognize modern-day prison labor as chain gangs deployed from prison facilities for agricultural and infrastructure work. | AP

Congressional Democrats are aiming to end forced prison labor in the U.S. by modifying a section of the 13th Amendment — a move lawmakers say would “finally abolish slavery.” 

Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR) and outgoing Rep. Lacy Clay (D-MO) introduced a joint resolution on Wednesday called the “Abolition Amendment,” which would remove the “Punishment Clause” of the 13th Amendment, which was ratified in 1865.

Language in the amendment banned slavery and involuntary servitude, except “as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.”

The resolution states that the clause “continued to drive the over-incarceration of Black Americans throughout the Jim Crow era,” and gave way to systems and campaigns that disproportionately impact communities of color such as the War on Drugs.

According to Bureau of Justice Statistics cited in Merkley's summary of the resolution, 900,000 people are engaged in forced labor in the United States. The summary also states that 97% of incarcerated people, who disproportionately belong to low-income communities or are of color, never had a trial, but were instead coerced into plea deals for non-violent offenses. Defendants in these circumstances are regularly coerced into discriminatory plea deals because they can’t afford bail, according to the Equal Justice Initiative. What’s more, some states do not pay prisoners for their labor, and in most other states, wages are less than $1 per hour.

“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,” Laura Pitter, deputy director of the U.S. program at Human Rights Watch, said of the proposed amendment.

Merkley and Clay’s resolution follows a summer of nationwide protests over systemic racism and police brutality against Black individuals.

The resolution had 17 co-sponsors, including Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), a former presidential candidate, as well as Sen. Deb Haaland (D-NM), a reported potential nominee for President-elect Joe Biden’s Cabinet. More than a dozen human rights and social justice organizations, including The Sentencing Project and Color of Change, have supported the amendment.