Voters in 5 states to decide in November whether to abolish forced prison labor

·National Reporter and Producer
·6 min read

In his 10 years behind bars, Dorsey Nunn says he was an inmate and a slave because he was forced to work for little to no money.

At 19 years old, Nunn was sent to a California prison and released in 1982 at the age of 31. “My situation would have been considered a serious crime. But regardless of how serious or how minor the crime is — I don’t think that the state should have the ability to impose slavery,” Nunn told Yahoo News. “What would justify the use of slavery in a country that was predicated upon snatching Africans and bringing them here [to America] and enslaving them?”

The involuntary servitude Nunn experienced is not uncommon. There are over 1.2 million people incarcerated in state and federal prisons in America, and roughly 2 in 3 of them are forced to work, according to the American Civil Liberties Union.

Members of the Maricopa County DUI chain gang are escorted to their assignment in Phoenix
Members of the Maricopa County DUI chain gang are escorted to their assignment in Phoenix. (Matt York/AP)

In 1865, following the Civil War, the 13th Amendment abolished slavery in the United States, but it included an exception that allows slavery to be used as punishment for a crime. The amendment states, “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”

Prison reform advocates believe that the use of forced labor as punishment for inmates is rooted in antebellum slavery.

“We know from speaking with formerly imprisoned persons that prisoners can be denied calls from their family, they may be sent to solitary and they may even be denied parole for refusing to work,” said Krysta Bisnauth, senior advocacy officer at Freedom United.

So far three states have removed the exception from the 13th Amendment in their state constitutions. “In 2018, Colorado became the first state since Rhode Island, which was the only state to fully abolish slavery prior to the 13th Amendment. And then Utah and Nebraska, followed in 2020,” Bisnauth explained.

Five states — Alabama, Louisiana, Oregon, Tennessee, and Vermont — will vote in the November midterm elections on whether or not to remove the punishment clause from their state constitutions, but prison reform advocates are focusing on action at the federal level.

Alabama chain gang inmate
An Alabama chain gang inmate crushes a limestone boulder. (Tami Chappell/Reuters)

Bianca Tylek, executive director of Worth Rises, says that the criminal justice advocacy organization is hoping to capitalize on the bipartisan response it has received.

“We have over 170 co-sponsors in the House, and are quickly moving to [obtain] additional co-sponsors, and call for action this year,” Tylek said.

On the national front, Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., and Rep. Nikema Williams, D-Ga., last year proposed an Abolition Amendment to remove the exception for slavery in the Constitution. On Monday, Williams posted a video in which she reiterated her support for removing the exception from the 13th Amendment.

“The Abolition Amendment would finally finish the job started by the Civil War, Emancipation Proclamation, and 13th Amendment and end the morally reprehensible practice of slavery and forced labor in America, and send a clear message: in this country, no person will be stripped of their basic humanity and forced to toil for someone else’s profit,” Merkley said in a press release.

Advocates like Bisnauth, however, say it has been an uphill battle to get some politicians and policymakers on board to amend the amendment.

Rep. Alan Seabaugh
Rep. Alan Seabaugh, R-La., sees the Abolition Amendment as largely symbolic and voted against it. (Melinda Deslatte/AP)

For instance, Louisiana state Rep. Alan Seabaugh, a Republican who’s state is voting on the amendment in November, told PEW that it’s “essentially just symbolic. It says what’s already on the books — although potentially worse,” Seabaugh said, suggesting that the language is flawed.

Even if voters approve amending state constitutions, advocates don’t expect immediate transformations in prison facilities. “Things would not automatically change, unfortunately,” Bisnauth said. “But what it would do is open the door, again, for [incarcerated people] to take cases to court and to say, look, this is illegal in our state, you can’t do this anymore.”

While America is the leading incarcerator in the world, Black Americans are imprisoned at nearly five times the rate of white Americans, according to a 2021 report by the Sentencing Project. Therefore, Bisnauth says that slavery in the America’s prison system is also a racial justice issue. “There's this huge legacy in the U.S. of racist policies in the form of the legal system of slavery,” she said, “which is perpetuated through mass incarceration and the prison industrial system.”

The prison labor system is a multibillion dollar industry and most Americans can’t see what happens behind prison walls. “There's a shocking, low understanding by the population at large about conditions in prison,” Bisnauth said. “Polling done by nonprofits [has] shown that people think that people in prison are making minimum wage or something close to minimum wage. But on average prisoners are paid less than a dollar a day for non-industry prison jobs.

An inmate sews uniforms at a New York state prison in Brocton, N.Y.
An inmate sews uniforms at a New York state prison in Brocton, N.Y. (Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images)

In 49 days, voters in five states will decide whether forced prison labor should continue. Bisnauth says the decision is simple.

“They’re choosing whether they want to live in a country that has fully outlawed slavery or not,” she said. America is known to many as the land of the free, but advocates say it won’t be completely free until the Constitution forbids slavery in all circumstances.

Nunn, executive director of Legal Services for Prisoners with Children, a nonprofit that provides legal support to incarcerated people and their families, says his transition back into society could have been much different if he wasn’t enslaved while in prison.

“These are people who ... are going to one day reenter society. And they will have been made perhaps even more vulnerable than they were when they entered. So they may be further vulnerable to other forms of forced labor when they leave the prison system,” Bisnauth said.