Slavery was on the ballot in the US midterms. Who voted to abolish it?

More than 150 years after slavery was outlawed in the US, the practice persists in the form of forced, unpaid prison labor. Five states had the opportunity to end this.

November 09, 2022 by Natalia Marques
A chain gang of prisoners subject to convict leasing in Florida, in the early 1900s. Thousands of freed Black people were reenslaved within the convict lease system, in which incarcerated people performed grueling forced labor without pay. Photo: Wikimedia

As children in the US learn in schools, slavery was abolished over 150 years ago during the nation’s Civil War in 1863. And yet, on the November 8 2022 midterm elections, five states, Oregon, Tennessee, Vermont, Louisiana, and Alabama, voted on ballot measures that would end slavery in those states. 

How is the US still be contending with slavery in 2022? The 13th Amendment to the US Constitution, ratified in 1865, abolished slavery. However, it contained a powerful exception—slavery would be legal as punishment for a crime.

As a result, hundreds of thousands of prison workers are held in involuntary servitude, often unpaid and always below minimum wage. Tennessee, Vermont, and Alabama voted yes on ballot measures that would end all exceptions to involuntary, forced, and unpaid labor within prisons within their respective state constitutions. Oregon’s vote is too close to call with only 66% of results in, but also seems to lean towards ending all forms of slavery. Louisiana rejected a ballot measure known as Amendment 7, which would have changed the current constitutional language that permits prison slavery.

Slavery by another name

After the Civil War ended in 1865, the states which had unsuccessfully seceded from the US to form the Confederacy devised a plan to maintain the slavocracy and reenslave the millions of newly freed slaves. This former slave-owning class exploited the loophole in the 13th Amendment and arrested thousands of freed Black people for petty so-called crimes, including talking too loudly or even to walk around “without any lawful purpose.” These laws were dubbed “Black codes,” as they targeted Black people specifically. 

As a result, thousands were reenslaved in what would be called the convict lease system, in which incarcerated people performed grueling forced labor without pay. Many were worked to death in a system that lasted seven decades and that was essentially slavery by another name.

Although this practice of peonage became less widespread and working conditions in prisons have improved, it still exists today. The US has the largest prison population of any nation in the world with over 20% of the world’s incarcerated population. Approximately 2 million people are incarcerated in the US. 800,000 of these prisoners are forced to work according to a June 2022 report by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). 

These workers, who many dub modern-day slaves, generate around $11 billion dollars annually by a conservative estimate despite earning only 13 cents to 52 cents per hour. Five states force prisoners to work under threat of punishment: Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Mississippi, and Texas. Seven states pay prisoners nothing for the vast majority of work assignments: Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, South Carolina, and Texas. The End the Exception Coalition, which works to abolish the loophole in the 13th Amendment, estimates that every year $14 billion in wages are stolen from incarcerated workers.

Louisiana and the Angola plantation

In Louisiana, the confusion around the language of Amendment 7 may have resulted in its downfall. Some of the ballot measure’s original supporters withdrew support due to considerations around wording. The Amendment would have changed the Louisiana state constitution’s wording from “Slavery and involuntary servitude are prohibited, except in the latter case as punishment for a crime,” to “Slavery and involuntary servitude are prohibited,” specifying that this “does not apply to the otherwise lawful administration of criminal justice.”

It is unclear what the modified wording would actually change. The amendment’s detractors claim that that language could technically permit slavery again. The Vote Yes on 7 Coalition, which includes End the Exception, said in a press release, “Do not be confused by this as we are convinced that the language: ‘the otherwise lawful activity of the criminal justice system’ in place of ‘except’ does not lead to an expansion of slavery. This amendment is only a first step in dismantling this aspect of what we consider an extremely predatory system.”

The US has the highest incarceration rate in the world, and Louisiana has the highest incarceration rate in the US, with a rate of 1,094 incarcerated per 100,000. According to Louisiana state law, anyone convicted of a felony is automatically sentenced to “hard labor”. 

Louisiana is home to the notorious Angola prison, a former slave plantation-turned-penitentiary that is one of the most striking representations of prison slavery. To this day, majority-Black prisoners are forced to pick cotton under the sweltering southern sun as prison guards oversee them on horseback. Since Angola’s inception as a prison, prisoners have been victims of horrendous conditions. In 1952, 31 prisoners, now known as the “Heel String Gang,” cut their Achilles tendons in protest of their conditions. In 2016, Clyde Carter filed a lawsuit claiming that he had been forced to work with an injured knee, and Jason Hacker in 2018 filed a lawsuit that he had been forced to work despite cataracts in his eyes. 

The prison has also been a site of organizing apart from the Heel String Gang. As Bryce Covert describes in The Appeal, in the 1960s two welders refused to build a lethal injection gurney, prompting 37 others to stop working in solidarity. In 2018, Angola was the site of a prison strike after an incarcerated worker was forced to work with a back injury.

Three political prisoners known as the Angola Three, Albert Woodfox, Herman Wallace, and Robert Hillary King, were imprisoned at Angola from the 1970s to the early 2000s and 2010s. Woodfox and Wallace were placed in solitary confinement, internationally recognized as a form of torture, for over 40 years—the longest period of solitary confinement in US history.  

Alabama votes to end slavery and segregation in 2022

Voters in Alabama, Tennessee, and Vermont chose to end the exceptions to slavery in their state constitutions. While this would not have immediate ramifications for current incarcerated workers, this could provide a basis for legal challenges to prison slavery. 

Alabama voters voted to change the language of the state constitution from “That no form of slavery shall exist in this state; and there shall not be any involuntary servitude, otherwise than for the punishment of crime, of which the party shall have been duly convicted,” to “That no form of slavery shall exist in this state; and there shall not be any involuntary servitude.”

Alabama’s victory in the ballots is notable as this year there was a massive system-wide shutdown of the prisons by prison workers, protesting long sentences with little to no parole. In the US, 80% of incarcerated workers are tasked with maintaining the prison itself, such as cooking, cleaning, and repairs. And Alabama prisons are severely understaffed with non-incarcerated labor, which means that prison strikes force the incarceration system to a halt. The strike drew attention not only to long sentencing laws which are among the root causes of mass incarceration, but also to prison slavery.

Alabama not only voted to end the exception to slavery within its constitution, it also voted to removed racist language that many in the US have thought long buried since the era before the Civl Rights movement. Alabama residents voted to remove racist language from the Constitution including sections which allowed poll taxes (which were used in the Jim Crow era to disenfranchise poor Black voters), interracial marriage, and segregation in schools.