Is slavery actually going away for good?

This election cycle, voters in Alabama, Louisiana, Oregon, Tennessee, and Vermont, will have the opportunity to vote to amend certain portions of the 13th amendment in their state. The amendment in its current form reads that basically any effort to coerce an individual to do work against their will, unless they have been convicted of a crime through a fair trial, is banned. 

This wording in the Constitution is disturbing to many politicians and activists, as they feel it serves as another remnant of America’s troubled past with race relations and the institution of slavery as a whole. Furthermore, they believe that this wording is ambiguous and leaves the door open for the mistreatment of prison inmates or even a return to slavery and involuntary servitude in the United States. 

Activists, such as Max Parthas, co-director of state operations of the Abolish Slavery National Network, emphasize the importance of distancing the language of our nation’s founding document from its ugly past and ensuring against slavery in the future. 

“We want to remove offensive language and provide protection for citizens from slavery and involuntary servitude,” said Parthas.

Currently, the 13th Amendment in the US Constitution has been introduced in the House of Representatives, where it has been referred to the House Committee on the Judiciary for revision. Some states have attempted to revise the amendment more rapidly. If the revision is agreed upon, the legislation would only change how prison labor is conducted and managed in the states that decide to amend their constitutions. 

Although many activists and politicians have proposed this revision in an attempt to clarify the legislation of the past, Adam Lamparello, GC law professor, believes that this will open up a “can of procedural substantive worms” into what is and is not defined as involuntary servitudes in the prison systems, which he believes will result in a firestorm or frivolous litigation nationwide. 

“I do not think you can clearly define what involuntary servitude is in the prison context,” said Lamparello. “I do not think that the revisions will have any meaningful impact whatsoever. I think it is a complete waste of time. We should be focusing on inflation and the economy, not this utter nonsense.” 

Lamparello believes that this attempt to symbolically remove language that may clash with current norms will ultimately have a negative impact on the ability of states to effectively manage prisoners. 

“All it will do is introduce problems in prison management,” said Lamparello.

Some GC students tend to side with Lamparello on this, as well.

“I feel like prison labor is probably helpful to maintaining infrastructure and keeping cities clean,” said an anonymous GC junior. “I don’t know a ton about it procedurally, but if it is taken away, it is likely our cities will be dirtier and in need of maintenance.”

States who are attempting to pass the revision remain dissonant in their stance on the use of forced labor in any form on prison inmates. In Colorado, where a revision has been added to the state legislature, the controversy around whether the state can punish prisoners for refusing to work or in any way coerce them to work is being disputed in a class action lawsuit involving plaintiffs that are currently incarcerated. If the suit is won, inmates will not be required to participate in any labor in prisons, including basic housekeeping positions.


Other states have introduced caveats in their legislation that suggest prison labor is still authorized. In Utah, their amendment states “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude shall exist” but adds that this “does not apply to the otherwise lawful administration of the criminal justice system.” 

“While forced labor is inherently dehumanizing, the maintenance of our roads and highways by those that have committed crimes against the state is a decently necessary part of our society,” said sophomore Accounting major Anson Wessner.

It remains to be seen if the revision will advance through House proceedings in Congress and if it will become a realized change to the US Constitution. However, decisions on this bill will be being made in the next few weeks in Alabama, Louisiana, Oregon, Tennessee and Vermont.