When most individuals hear that Congress is at the moment contemplating a constitutional modification to abolish slavery in all cases, their first response is: didn’t the Thirteenth Modification already do this?
The reality is, whereas the Thirteenth Modification marked a momentous shift in our nation’s historical past, it additionally accommodates a gaping loophole: it outlaws slavery and involuntary servitude “besides as punishment for crime.” That exception permits incarcerated folks across the nation to be pressured to work for little or no pay, usually in inhumane situations, underneath menace of extreme punishment.
Jail labor is a part of a protracted and shameful historical past of exploiting this exception, predominantly on the expense of Black People. After the Civil Conflict, southern states handed legal guidelines referred to as “Black Codes” that imposed harsh felony punishments for minor transgressions. Typically, states would arrest folks for violating these legal guidelines after which “lease” them out to personal factories and plantations the place they had been pressured to work for no pay underneath lethal situations, generally actually chained collectively.
These practices proceed in the present day within the type of pressured jail labor. Certainly, at a Louisiana jail, males are nonetheless pressured to labor within the fields—even choose cotton—for as little as two cents per hour. And on the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, New York turned to jail labor to complement manufacturing of hand sanitizer, forcing incarcerated folks to place their very own well being in danger to create a public well being product.
These practices should finish if our nation is to reside as much as its promise of liberty and justice for all. Essentially the most enduring resolution—one that will make sure that slavery is eradicated from all corners of the nation—is a constitutional modification just like the one launched by Senator Jeff Merkley (D-OR) and Consultant Nikema Williams (D-GA) roughly one yr in the past. However whereas laudable efforts to go that modification proceed, we should additionally battle to make actual the Thirteenth Modification’s protections as they exist in the present day.
One place the place this battle has just lately come to a head is Lackawanna County, Pennsylvania, the place folks held in civil contempt for failure to pay baby assist are jailed till they pay a portion of their arrears. To be eligible for work launch—the one manner these people pays their money owed and stroll free—the debtors are pressured to work in abominable situations within the Lackawanna Recycling Middle, the place they separate trash and recyclables on conveyor belts, steadily breaking out in pores and skin rashes, struggling wounds from sharp items of glass, and vomiting from the stench.
A number of males pressured to labor in these situations filed a lawsuit alleging violations of the Thirteenth Modification. Notably, that Modification’s clause allowing slavery as punishment for crime doesn’t bar the go well with as a result of labor within the Recycling Middle is imposed on civil contemnors—people who’ve by no means been convicted of any crime.
A federal trial court docket dismissed the go well with, and the plaintiffs challenged that ruling within the Philadelphia-based Third Circuit Court docket of Appeals, which heard the case final week.
If that court docket adheres to the textual content and historical past of the Thirteenth Modification, it would let this necessary go well with go ahead. Whereas a chief aim of the Modification was to convey an finish to the establishment of chattel slavery, its textual content goes additional, together with a bar on “involuntary servitude” that prohibits all types of labor compelled by bodily or authorized coercion. Certainly, the association in Lackawanna County intently resembles a system of pressured labor that the Supreme Court docket has affirmatively held violates the Thirteenth Modification: peonage—that’s, obligatory service to safe the cost of a debt.
What the court docket decides on this case will converse volumes about whether or not courts are keen to comply with the broad constitutional prohibition on slavery that at the moment exists. However regardless of the court docket decides, the battle in Congress to make that prohibition even broader should proceed if we wish to finish slavery on this nation as soon as and for all.