On Juneteenth, now in its second year as a federal holiday commemorating the freedom of enslaved Black people, lawmakers in Washington called for a change to the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery.
They’re urging congressional colleagues to put an end to an exception in the amendment that allows incarcerated people, who are disproportionately Black, to be “legally enslaved” by paying them meager wages for their work.
“I'm bold enough to think that I can change the Constitution, and I know that there's a national, bipartisan, multiracial movement to get it done. Let's #EndTheException in the 13th Amendment,” Georgia’s Democratic Rep. Nikema Williams tweeted on June 19.
The 13th Amendment states, ratified by Congress on Dec. 6, 1865 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.” Advocates say the exception for incarcerated people is tantamount to slave labor.
“The Abolition Amendment would end the morally reprehensible practice of slavery and forced labor in America,” Williams explained. “Today, in the United States, there are nearly two million people behind bars who are disproportionately Black and who can still be legally enslaved.”
About two out of three state and federal prison inmates work jobs, ranging from cooks and janitors to painters and plumbers, and earn an average minimum wage of 52 cents an hour or less, according to an ACLU report titled “Captive Labor: Exploitation of Incarcerated Workers.”
The report noted, “Incarcerated workers produce more than $2 billion a year in goods and commodities and over $9 billion a year in services for the maintenance of the prisons where they are warehoused.”
Senator Jeff Merkley, an Oregon Democrat, introduced companion legislation in the Senate.
“One concrete step that I’m pushing for in the Senate is passing the Abolition Amendment to #EndTheException in our 13th Amendment that allows for slavery as punishment for a crime, Merkley tweeted on June 19. “This clause has fueled re-enslavement and mass incarceration for generations, and must be removed.”