Tal Axelrod

Issue 61

By Tal Axelrod

Senator Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) and Rep.Wm. Lacy Clay (D-Mo.) proposed a joint resolution Wednesday to remove a punitive provision in the 13th Amendment of the Constitution, which outlaws slavery. The resolution calls for the House and Senate to craft an amendment saying that “neither slavery nor involuntary servitude may be imposed as a punishment for a crime.”

The lawmakers said the wording would close a loophole in the 13th Amendment that still provides an avenue for slavery to be legal. The amendment currently reads that “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.”

“America was founded on beautiful principles of equality and justice and horrific realities of slavery and white supremacy, and if we are ever going to fully deliver on the principles we have to directly confront the realities,” said Merkley. “The exception to the 13th Amendment’s ban on slavery corrupted criminal justice into a tool of racist control of Black Americans and other people of color, and we see that legacy every day in police encounters, courtrooms, and prisons throughout our country. Slavery is incompatible with justice. No slavery, no exceptions.”

“Our Abolition Amendment seeks to finish the job that President Lincoln started by ending the punishment clause in the 13th Amendment to eliminate the dehumanizing and discriminatory forced labor of prisoners for profit that has been used to drive the over-incarceration of African Americans since the end of the Civil War. No American should ever be subject to involuntary servitude, even if they are incarcerated,” added Clay.

Merkley and Clay were joined by 17 co-sponsors in introducing the legislation.

In a statement announcing the legislation, Merkley and Clay tied the loophole to “Black Codes” that were implemented in the late 1800’s and used by Southern sheriffs  to lease out imprisoned people to work landowners’ fields. Merkley and Clay said the language created “a financial incentive for mass incarceration” that they say still exists today in unequal treatment of people of color in the criminal justice system.

The proposal comes after a summer of national protests over systemic racism and police brutality following the shootings of unarmed Black Americans by law enforcement. The legislation garnered the support of an array of activist groups.

“This change is long overdue. The punishment clause in the 13th amendment is a legacy of slavery that has allowed people incarcerated, disproportionately Black and brown, to be exploited for decades. 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,” said Laura Pitter, deputy director of the U.S. program at Human Rights Watch.



[Ed Mead's Response: Jalil Muntaqim (Anthony Bottom) has served close to fifty years in New York prisons for killing two NY police officers. Sometime back around 1976, Jalil led a petition with the United Nations in an effort to abolish prison slavery. At the time I too was a prisoner and, in a small way, helped him by raising the slavery issue in the prisoner-oriented publication I was then publishing. Jalil provided me with  a copy of the documents he had filed with the UN. It was back then that I first became aware of the issue of social slavery.

Now, just as I was about to print this issue, a comrade sent me a link to the above article about modifying the 13th Amendment in order to remove the provision that permits prison slavery. The article totally blew me away. I have been struggling to abolish the slavery amendment since 1976, and never in my wildest dreams did I think I would live long enough to see any substantial progress being made. My work was merely to lay the groundwork for the next generation of prisoner activists. While this particular eff ort to modify the Thirteenth Amendment may or may not pass into law, the issue has nonetheless finally reached the ears of state power—it has gained some traction. And it has done so because prisoners across the nation have been writing and protesting their condition of state-sanctioned slaves. There is nothing more powerful than an idea that has settled into the consciousness of the masses of oppressed peoples. The struggle against slavery is an idea whose time has come.

With the abolition of slavery the nature of imprisonment will be radically and forever altered. The right of prisoners to vote, for example, will only be the fi rst step. Readers are urged to peacefully and responsibly take up this call for constructive change.] 

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