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International News: American states to vote on exemption for chattel slavery in prisons

Posted: Monday, November 7, 2022. 10:40 am CST.

By Aaron Humes: The BBC reports that Tuesday’s general election in the United States is important for many reasons as control of Congress could pave the way for the return of Donald Trump and more conservative values.

But in five states, it will be important for another reason. Voters in Alabama, Louisiana, Oregon, Tennessee, and Vermont will decide whether to remove exemptions on forced labour for convicted prisoners from their state constitutions in an effort to ban slavery entirely.

It has been 157 years since the U.S. constitution banned chattel slavery – in which one person is the legal property of another – but left in place an exemption for convicted prisoners. In fact, throughout most of the U.S., slavery is still legal as punishment for a crime.

Currently, some 800,000 prisoners currently work for pennies, or for nothing at all. Seven states do not pay prison workers any wage for most job assignments. Supporters of change say it’s an exploitative loophole that must be closed. But critics argue that the move is unaffordable and could lead to unintended consequences in the criminal justice system.

The roots of the modern system originate in the centuries of enslavement of African-Americans, human rights researchers say. In the years after slavery was outlawed, laws were passed that specifically aimed to suppress black communities and force them into prisons where they would be required to work. Now, some imprisoned black Americans are still forced to pick cotton and other crops on the southern plantations where their forefathers were kept in chains.

Activists have had some success with measures banning all forms of slavery by states and are pushing for change in the U.S. Constitution. Colorado, Nebraska, and Utah have passed such measures – in the latter case with bipartisan support – and as many as 18 state legislatures could hold such a vote in 2023. While there are few major opponents, concerns have been raised about proper wages and even whether it could be disadvantageous to inmates.

In California, legislators warned that a $15 per hour minimum wage would cost more than US$1.5 billion to pay prisoners, while the Oregon State Sheriffs’ Association cites the loss of “reformative programs” which provide incentive for good behavior, limits for those in pre-trial detention, and end any prison program not specifically cited by a court sentence.

In the U.S. prisoners have been commissioned to make everything from eyeglasses to car license plates to city park benches. They process beef, milk, and cheese, and work in call support centers for government agencies and major companies. Popular businesses in Utah alone that have used prison labour, typically through a subcontractor, include American Express, Apple, Pepsi-Co, and FedEx, according to a June report from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). Prisoners have also been included in emergency operation plans to quell civil disruptions and even fight wildfires.

And still to be determined are the rights prison workers would have and benefits they would get similar to those on the outside.


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