Over 150 years after slaves were freed in the United States, four states voted Tuesday to remove language that permits forced prison labor from their state constitutions.
While the 13th Amendment abolished slavery in 1865, it included an exception that allowed slavery to be used as punishment for a crime. The amendment states, “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”
More than 1.2 million people are incarcerated in state and federal prisons in America, and roughly 2 in 3 of those incarcerated people are forced to work, according to the American Civil Liberties Union.
After Election Day, over a dozen state constitutions still include language that allows forced prison labor as punishment, and prison reform advocates believe the use of forced labor in prisons is rooted in antebellum slavery.
Voters in Alabama, Tennessee, Vermont, Louisiana and Oregon decided on the future of forced prison labor in their states.
Alabama voters overwhelmingly decided to “ratify the recompiled state constitution,” which fully abolishes slavery in the state. Specifically, the vote removes the language from the constitution that permits forced labor in prison.
Currently, there are over 130 jails with a population of over 16,000 people in Alabama, according to the National Institute of Corrections.
Of the five states that had slavery on the ballot, Louisiana voters rejected a ballot question that asked whether they supported an amendment to prohibit the use of involuntary servitude in jails.
The results in Louisiana were the opposite of those in the other four states with similar ballot legislation. More than 790,000 voters in Louisiana decided to keep the constitutional language that allows slavery as punishment; over 508,000 Louisianans voted to remove it.
Amendment 7, the question on the ballot, read: "Do you support an amendment to prohibit the use of involuntary servitude except as it applies to the otherwise lawful administration of criminal justice?"
Approximately 50,000 people are incarcerated in Louisiana, and there is an incarceration rate of 1,094 per 100,000 people, according to the Prison Policy Initiative.
On Wednesday, more than 780,000 Oregon voters passed Measure 112 to remove constitutional language allowing slavery as punishment.
Measure 112 will remove the current language in the state constitution that allows the use of slavery for criminal punishment.
In Tennessee, an overwhelming number of voters voted to remove the constitutional language allowing slavery as punishment. Approximately 332,000 people voted to continue to allow it for those behind bars.
Amendment 3 read: "That slavery and involuntary servitude are forever prohibited in this State. Nothing in this section shall prohibit an inmate from working when the inmate has been duly convicted of a crime."
Nearly 60,000 people are incarcerated in Tennessee, and the incarceration rate is 838 per 100,000 people, according to the Prison Policy Initiative.
In Vermont, a state with a population of over 645,000, nearly 150,000 people voted to prohibit language stating that a person could be held as a servant or slave under Proposal 2.
Over 17,000 people voted against removing the use of slavery for punishment in the state.
Proposal 2 adds new text to the Vermont Constitution that states: "Slavery and indentured servitude in any form are prohibited."
Over 2,000 people are incarcerated in Vermont, and the incarceration rate is 288 per 100,000 people, according to the Prison Policy Initiative.
After four states voted to end forced prison labor, many prison reform advocates are hopeful, but they believe there is more work to be done.
“Things would not automatically change, unfortunately,” Krysta Bisnauth, senior advocacy officer at Freedom United, told Yahoo News before the election. “But what it would do is open the door, again, for [incarcerated people] to take cases to court and to say, 'Look, this is illegal in our state, you can’t do this anymore.'”
Bisnauth said on Wednesday that the election results show progress in the right direction. “At the beginning of 2022, there were 20 states where slavery and involuntary servitude were still legal. Now we're down to 16. We could be well on our way to none by the end of 2023."