“Abolition Amendment” Could End Loophole That Allows Forced Labor in Prisons

After President Biden signed legislation this month to create a federal holiday commemorating June 19 as Juneteenth, Oregon Senator Jeff Merkley and Georgia Congressmember Nikema Williams reintroduced what is being called the “Abolition Amendment” to amend the 13th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which banned slavery and involuntary servitude “except as a punishment for crime” — a clause that has allowed the widespread use of forced prison labor. “Eliminating the loophole … is one way to continue moving forward with addressing the problems of our past and building for the future,” says Democratic Congressmember Nikema Williams. “American prisons are run by incarcerated labor,” adds Jorge Renaud, national criminal justice director for LatinoJustice, who experienced forced labor while serving 27 years in a Texas prison.

TRANSCRIPT

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AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González, as we look now at a new Abolition Amendment that was reintroduced after President Biden signed legislation this month to create a federal holiday commemorating June 19th as Juneteenth, the day in 1865 when enslaved people in Galveston, Texas, learned of their freedom more than two years after the Emancipation Proclamation. Some human rights advocates say Juneteenth didn’t actually mark the end of slavery in the United States, because of a clause in the 13th Amendment that bans the enslavement of people with the exception of involuntary servitude as punishment for being convicted of a crime. Now Oregon Senator Jeff Merkley and Georgia Congressmember Nikema Williams have reintroduced legislation to amend the 13th Amendment.

For more, we’re joined by Jorge Renaud, the national criminal justice director for LatinoJustice. He was previously incarcerated for over 27 years in Texas, where he picked cotton, chopped trees and did road work. He’s joining us from Austin. And joining us from Washington, D.C., is the sponsor of this amendment to the amendment, Congressmember Nikema Williams.

It’s great to have you with us for the first time, as you replace John Lewis in Congress. We’ll talk about voting in a bit. But let’s start with this. Can you talk about your — what’s called the Abolition Amendment?

REP. NIKEMA WILLIAMS: Absolutely, Amy. Thank you for having me.

I think we need to look at exactly where we are in our country right now. We’re in a period of reckoning with our country’s history. Just yesterday on the House floor, we voted to remove statues of people who voluntarily served the Confederacy in this country. We saw what happened on January 6th. We came together as a country and voted in a very bipartisan — because people like to use that word so much — bipartisan fashion to make Juneteenth a federal holiday. But yet we still have our country’s founding document; our Constitution has an exception for slavery. And the history of this country is marked with racism and white supremacy and oppression, and it’s up to us to do something about it.

So, eliminating the loophole in the 13th Amendment, that still allows for slavery if people have been convicted of a crime, is one way to continue to move forward with addressing the problems of our past and building for the future. I think I hear a lot people say, “But it’s not really happening, and there’s no slavery, like, really happening in the country.” Then what’s the problem with removing it, Amy? What I know and what I’ve seen from history is, some laws are put on the books and some things are in place just so that they can be used in certain instances, for certain people.

So I am working with my colleague in the Senate to make sure that we get this done. We’ve seen that there are some states that have already removed this from their state constitutions. Very red states, like Nebraska and Utah, they had constitutional amendments and took it to the voters, and the voters in their states agreed that this loophole was unacceptable. And it’s time that we do that on the federal level.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Congresswoman, a lot of people are not familiar with this history of this enslavement provision, especially in penal facilities. The state of Alabama, by the turn of the century, about a third of its revenue came from contracting out prison labor?

REP. NIKEMA WILLIAMS: Yeah. I mean, if you go just back to the history of this country when Black Codes were put in place — and that’s why the exception was initially there, so that these Black Codes that were put in place, for the same people that were just freed, you could arrest them for loitering, you could arrest them for minor infractions, and then put them right back in the fields that they were just freed from. And this has continued to play into this mass incarceration system that we have in this country, that we all know disproportionately impacts Black and Brown people.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Jorge Renaud, from — the national criminal justice director for LatinoJustice, welcome to Democracy Now! Could you talk about the Abolition Amendment, what you hope it might achieve?

JORGE RENAUD: Yeah. Thank you. Good morning. First, I want to say it’s an honor to be here with the congresswoman from Georgia.

Yeah, first, I want to say a couple of things. And I think that one of the ways that we’re going to have to begin this is with how we frame it and how we talk about this. In introducing this segment, the comment was made that some activists say that this is happening the way it is. I think, objectively speaking, that is actually part of the Constitution. And right now there are some like 2.3 million people incarcerated in American cages — right? — 1.8 million of them in prisons across the country who own nothing, who are told to go to work whenever the administration wants them to go to work, whose work and labor benefit — 96% of the work that is done by individuals who are incarcerated in American prisons benefits a local government and doesn’t benefit private corporations, right?

So I think that what we have to do first is we have to recognize that American prisons are run by incarcerated labor. Right? The only thing that guards do in this country is pass out mail, turn keys and count individuals. Everything else, from cutting the grass, from doing the electrical work, from doing the maintenance work, from cooking and cleaning and washing dirty underwear — everything is done by incarcerated individuals, who, in five states, don’t get anything at all for their labor, which means that this country is built upon the concept — right? — of — upon the idea that ambition and initiative is something good, that you could pull yourself up by your bootstraps, right? However, you can go into an American prison and come out 25 years later and not have a penny to your name. And I think even worse than the enforced poverty — right? — that is inflicted upon those individuals is the idea that their labor, that themselves, is not worthy at all — right? — that they have no input into what they do while they’re incarcerated — right? — and that they’re not — and that none of their work is beneficial to when they get out.

AMY GOODMAN: Jorge, one of the reasons we call Democracy Now! news with a heart is we go to the people who are closest to a story.

JORGE RENAUD: Right. Thank you for that.

AMY GOODMAN: You are not just an armchair commentator on this issue; you experienced it. You were in prison for 27 years in Texas, where you picked cotton, chopped trees, did road work. Can you talk about how this amendment would affect you?

JORGE RENAUD: OK. I just would —

AMY GOODMAN: If you had — if this were passed while you were in prison.

JORGE RENAUD: Yeah, yeah. But the thing is, it would still affect me, in a way, because I am still — I just went to New York for three days, right? And I had to go down to the Board of Pardons and Paroles and get permission in order to travel, and I had to show it to law enforcement. And that’s kind of analogous to the slave papers — right? — that when slaves were allowed to travel — right? — back over a hundred years ago, they had to get permission from their masters.

So, while I was incarcerated, I think, one, it would have allowed me, in a way, to pursue employment or educational or vocational work while I was incarcerated that was meaningful to me — right? — something that I could build upon for when I got out. It would have allowed me to say, “You know what? This specific job that has to be done in prison — right? — that you may or may not pay me for, however, is one that’s going to be conducive to my skill set.” It would allow me to say the work that I am doing while I’m incarcerated is meaningful to the community around me, which are the other individuals who also are incarcerated, right? It would have allowed me to think, “I matter. I mean something.”

As it was, I was put in solitary confinement because I told the people the last time that I was incarcerated, two years in, when I was working out in the fields, that I was tired of doing slave work and fieldwork, and they put me in solitary. And they told me, “You are going to do what we tell you to do, when we tell you to do it.” They beat me, and they carried me in the building, and they locked me up in solitary confinement. So, I think it would have put a stop to some of that, right? Yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: How many — very quickly, did you get paid? And how many states pay no wages at all?

JORGE RENAUD: Five states right now pay no wages at all. I was given $50 when I was released. And I was given a bus ticket to Austin, which was where I had told the parole board I was paroling to. So, no, I was not paid not one penny for all the labor that I did.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And I’d like to get back to Congresswoman Nikema Williams. I wanted to ask you: What do you see as the prospects for this legislation, especially given the very close division in the Senate and in the House, as well, but especially in the Senate?

REP. NIKEMA WILLIAMS: So, this was — this is something that I think could pass on a bipartisan level. We’ve seen a willingness of some Republicans to come to grips with our nation’s history and stand on the side of what is right. This was a bipartisan bill when it was introduced in the last Congress, and we are working through this. So, I am hopeful that we will see people standing up to say that, once and for all, we’re going to end the exception for slavery in our Constitution.

We’re still working on it. It was just introduced recently, so there’s still so much more work to do. We need people to be calling their members of Congress and calling their senators and voicing their concerns. A lot of members don’t even know this exists. When I introduced it, I started talking to some of my Democratic colleagues, and they didn’t realize that there was still an exception in the U.S. Constitution for slavery.