Voters in Alabama, Oregon, Tennessee and Vermont have officially abolished slavery in all forms by voting to amend their state constitutions, removing a legal exception that still permitted slavery and involuntary servitude as forms of punishment for crimes.
The initiatives on the ballot Tuesday don’t force immediate changes in the states’ prisons, where inmate labour continues to be used, but they may invite legal challenges over the practice of coercing prisoners to work under threat of sanctions or loss of privileges if they refuse the work.
But in Louisiana, voters rejected the proposed Amendment 7 that would have reworded the offending part of its constitution, partly because it might have legalized slavery again.
Louisiana’s Constitution currently states: “Slavery and involuntary servitude are prohibited, except in the latter case as punishment for a crime.” The amendment would have changed that to: “Slavery and involuntary servitude are prohibited, but this does not apply to the otherwise lawful administration of criminal justice.”
The Democratic representative who first proposed the amendment, civil rights lawyer Edmond Jordan, urged voters to reject the proposal. According to the Louisiana Illuminator, the language of the amendment was watered down during the legislative process, and would have still permitted forced labour as part of a criminal sentence.
The nonprofit Council for a Better Louisiana also urged voters to vote down the proposal, and said that Amendment 7 is “an example of why it is so important to get the language right when presenting constitutional amendments to voters.”
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In Tennessee, all forms of slavery were abolished with 79.54 per cent of the vote, according to ballot numbers from the secretary of state’s office.
The Tennessee Constitution now reads, “Slavery and involuntary servitude are forever prohibited. Nothing in this section shall prohibit an inmate from working when the inmate has been duly convicted of a crime.”
Alabama also removed its constitutional exception for slavery and added a section about convict labour, similar to Tennessee.
Vermont, which was the first state in the nation to ban slavery in 1777, had still allowed involuntary servitude “for the payments of debts, damages, fines, costs, or the like.”
Vermont has now replaced that clause in its constitution with “slavery and indentured servitude in any form are prohibited.” The measure passed with 89 per cent of the vote.
In Oregon, the margins were closer, with 54 per cent of ballots cast in favour of repealing the slavery exception. Over 600,000 people voted against the measure.
The Oregon Constitution will now prohibit slavery and involuntary servitude as criminal punishments and add a section that authorizes “an Oregon court or a probation or parole agency to order alternatives to incarceration for a convicted individual as part of their sentencing.”
The results were celebrated among anti-slavery advocates, including those pushing to further amend the national U.S. Constitution, whose 13th Amendment permits enslavement and involuntary servitude as a form of criminal punishment.
It reads: “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.”
More than 150 years after enslaved Africans and their descendants were released from bondage through ratification of the 13th Amendment, the slavery exception continues to permit the exploitation of low-cost labour by incarcerated people.
Scrutiny over prison labour has existed for decades, but the 13th Amendment’s loophole in particular encouraged former Confederate states after the Civil War to devise new ways to maintain the dynamics of slavery. They used restrictive measures, known as the “Black codes” because they nearly always targeted Black people, to criminalize benign interactions such as talking too loudly or not yielding on the sidewalk. Those targeted would end up in custody for minor actions, effectively enslaving them again.
Fast-forward to today, when many incarcerated workers make pennies on the dollar, which isn’t expected to change now that some of these proposals have succeeded.
— with files from The Associated Press