Like me, I’m guessing that many of you were laboring under the impression that slavery in the United States went away some time in the middle of the century before last. But don’t try telling that to people in five states that will be voting on the subject of ending slavery next month. Voters in Alabama, Louisiana, Oregon, Tennessee, and Vermont will be considering ballot measures to eliminate “slavery” as the word applies to prisoners who are assigned to prison labor while serving their sentences. This type of forced labor is allowed under the 13th amendment, which banned slavery, but made a specific exception for work performed “as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.” This particular form of “justice reformation” has been making the rounds for several years and it was already enacted in Colorado, Nebraska and Utah. But the trend seems to be spreading. (Associated Press)

More than 150 years after slaves were freed in the U.S., voters in five states will soon decide whether to close loopholes that led to the proliferation of a different form of slavery — forced labor by people convicted of certain crimes.

None of the proposals would force immediate changes inside the states’ prisons, though they could lead to legal challenges related to how they use prison labor, a lasting imprint of slavery’s legacy on the entire United States.

The effort is part of a national push to amend the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution that banned enslavement or involuntary servitude except as a form of criminal punishment. That exception has long permitted the exploitation of labor by convicted felons.

Blame this brouhaha on the authors of the 13th Amendment for lumping in prison labor under the general banner of “slavery.” I doubt anyone gave the matter much thought back in the 1860s, but they probably had no way of foreseeing what sort of social upheavals would be coming our way 150 years later.

As far as I’m concerned, this really shouldn’t even be an issue and the “movement” behind it ignores several realities of the criminal justice system. First of all, it’s a bit of a stretch to describe prison labor as “slavery.” True slavery involves taking a person who is not being charged with any crime under the rule of law and unjustly imprisoning them against their will with the intent of using them as part of a labor force without compensation. People who find themselves in prison are there because they have either pleaded guilty to a crime or been properly convicted of such offenses in a court of law.

While it’s true that prisoners are, pretty much by definition, being held “against their will,” (who in their right mind wants to go to prison?) that’s hardly the same thing as slavery. As far as the labor portion of it goes, using prisoners to perform work either inside of the facility or out in public not only makes economic sense but it provides certain avenues of progress for willing prisoners. A cheap source of labor makes both the prison and certain public municipal projects (e.g. highway cleanup) more financially viable.

Further, getting people who may have fallen into criminal activity as a way of life into the habit of rising each day and going out to do productive work of any sort can potentially help adjust their mindset and prepare them to return to society in a (hopefully) law-abiding fashion. Many prisoners earn extra credit and are able to reduce their sentences by participating in prison labor programs, also.

I don’t believe that any prisoner should be forced to engage in labor programs if they flatly refuse to do so. (Unmotivated workers don’t tend to be terribly productive.) But they should also be made aware that they will be missing out on the potential benefits I mentioned above. Outlawing prison labor entirely in the name of “ending slavery” closes the door to all of these opportunities.

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