Celebrated Juneteenth? Now Push to End Prison Slavery

Constitution, many states still support it

Vanessa Gallman
3 min readJun 19, 2024

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Photo by CGXL MEDIA on Unsplash

On Juneteenth, our national celebration of the 1865 abolition of slavery in Confederate states, we should not ignore that prisoners are forced to work for little or no pay — and that the U.S. Constitution endorses it.

The 13th Amendment allows involuntary servitude as punishment for a crime. The exception was made because former slave states sought to retain a flow of cheap labor. New laws, called the Black Codes, criminalized vagrancy, unpaid fees and even bad language to keep prisons and jails full of workers who could be leased out. About 20 states include similar exclusions in their constitutions.

Inmates generate $2 billion in goods and $9 billion of prison upkeep annually while earning between 13 and 52 cents a hour, according to an American Civil Liberties Union report.

“To this day, legalized slavery has bent the criminal justice system, fanned the flames of mass incarceration and stripped millions of people — in particular Black Americans and other people of color — of their basic human rights,” said Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkey, cosponsor of a bill seeking to close the slavery loophole.

So far, the Abolition Amendment, has gotten little traction. If approved by Congress, it…

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Vanessa Gallman

Experienced journalist, educator and retired opinion-page editor with occasional musings