Given how slowly things move in the US except when it comes to war or benefitting the oligarchy, I was surprised at the speed with which legislation was passed declaring today June 19th, the day known as Juneteenth, to be declared a federal holiday. I was even more surprised that this move was widely supported by Republicans in Congress (despite some opposition), though there were efforts of some in the right-wing media world to turn it into yet another white grievance.
But attention needs to be focused on a remnant of the post-Civil War reaction during the period known as Reconstruction where white people used a clause in the Thirteenth Amendment outlawing slavery to enact laws that brought back involuntary servitude of black people, this time under the guise of making all manner of behavior criminal. There are calls to remove that clause.
As the nation this week made Juneteenth a federal holiday, honoring when the last enslaved Black people learned they were free, lawmakers are reviving calls to end a loophole in the Constitution that allowed another form of slavery — forced labor for convicted felons — to thrive.
Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkley and Georgia Rep. Nikema Williams told The Associated Press they will reintroduce legislation to revise the 13th Amendment, which bans enslavement or involuntary servitude except as a form of criminal punishment. That exception, which has been recognized since 1865, has led to the common practice of forced labor by felons.
“At the moment that we are celebrating, if you will, the 13th Amendment and the end of slavery and its eventual announcement … we should at the same time recognize that the 13th Amendment was flawed,” Merkley said. “It enabled states to arrest people for any reason, convict them and put them back into slavery.”
The amendment’s loophole for criminal punishment encouraged former Confederate states, after the Civil War, to devise ways to maintain the dynamics of slavery. They used restrictive measures known as the “black codes,” laws targeting Black people for benign interactions from talking too loudly to not yielding on the sidewalk. Those targeted would end up in custody for these minor actions, and would effectively be enslaved again.
The amendment’s clause has significant repercussions today, says Bianca Tylek, Worth Rises’ executive director. Incarcerated workers make at most pennies on the dollar for their contributions, she says, and they lack recourse if they get hurt working or have to work when sick.
“We’re talking about people who can be beaten for not working. People can be denied calls and visits, contact with their family,” Tylek said. “People can be put into solitary confinement. People can take hits on their long-term record.”
Jorge Renaud, national criminal justice director for LatinoJustice and a parolee, said those punishments happened to him when he couldn’t get through some jobs. He spent much of his 27 years in Texas state prisons doing hard labor like picking cotton, chopping down trees and grading roads. Texas does not pay jailed workers.
I am surprised that the private sector is not vociferously demanding that free or cheap prison labor be abolished since it undercuts their own low wage business model. Maybe the best way to eliminate the 13th amendment’s loophole is to have prisoners work in competition with Amazon. Then you can bet that Jeff Bezos would vigorously support removing the loophole.