Originally written by Karisma Patrick, Guest Writer from Fiat Lux News Vol. 120, Issue #2

Slavery was on the ballot in this past midterm election. 

Voters got to decide whether slavery should be abolished in Alabama, Tennessee, Louisiana, Vermont, and Oregon. The ballot initiative aimed to create criminal justice reform in prison labor, and it was approved by voters in four of the five states.

The ballot initiatives don’t enact immediate change in the prison system, but they allow for legal challenges over forcing prisoners to work under threats of losing privileges or sanctions.

Slavery was officially outlawed by the Thirteenth Amendment in 1865, but forms of it have survived because of the exception clause. 

“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,” says the Thirteenth Amendment.

Johnny Perez was a victim of this exception clause while he spent 13 years in New York’s Prison system. 

“Slavery never ended; It evolved,” says Perez in an interview with the Abolish Slavery National Network. 

 “Working in prison made me feel very dehumanized… it made me feel worthless,” he explains. “You are not allowed any days off; you are not allowed any sick time. If you do not go to work, then you are sent to solitary confinement which is 23 hours a day locked inside a cell the size of your bathroom.” 

Brenda Lee Marie, a criminal justice major at Alfred University, also sees prison labor as modern-day slavery. 

“Many manufacturing companies use prison labor to support their products,” says Marie. “The people who make license plates for your car are actually prisoners. They get paid either nothing, or as low as fifteen cents.” 

“You’re not necessarily getting paid good wages, and you work long hours,” she says. 

This can be compared to the working conditions of the enslaved people in America. Slaves had to do all of the work and saw no profit on top of being abused all the time. A lot of the prisoners are living under the same circumstances.

Slavery was never fully abolished in the United States. The Thirteenth Amendment left possibilities for it open. States have been using it in their prisons. However, voters in Alabama, Vermont, Tennessee, and Oregon have pushed for a change. Hopefully, this change will also be reflected in the United States Constitution in the future.