Voices from the inside out: Prisoners discuss impact of 13th Amendment

January 29, 2018

From the January-February 2018 issue of News & Letters

by Faruq

The 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution is the focus of prisoners across the country because of the clause that sanctions our physical abuse: “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.”


It can’t be denied that the 13th Amendment ended chattel slavery, but why end involuntary servitude on one level of society only to sanction it on another? Obviously it boils down to the issue of labor.

13th Amendment as it appeared when written and voted on.

For the South, creating a legal avenue that would justify the exploitation of a convicted person’s labor could not have manifested at a more opportune time. The South, having suffered total destruction of its infrastructure due to losing the Civil War, was in need of a dependable labor force. What better source of labor than the newly freed slaves?

A Commissioner of the Freedmen’s Bureau in Mississippi gave a picture of the southern attitude towards the newly freed slaves. He wrote: “The whites esteem the blacks as their property by natural right…[T]hey might admit that the relation of masters and slaves have been destroyed by the war and…[the] Emancipation Proclamation they still have ingrained feeling that the blacks…belong to the whites…[W]henever opportunity serves, they treat the colored people just as their profit, caprice or passion may dictate.”

What the Commissioner described shows why and how the Black Codes played into the southern attitude. It was being in violation of the Black Codes in the majority of instances, or merely the words of a white man, that landed a Black person in jail or prison. Convict leasing became integral to the South’s ability to restart its economic production in labor-intensive areas, e.g., roads, lumber, farming, cotton and mining.*

In our present-day reality the fear of alleged criminality has fostered the atmosphere for mass incarceration—a process facilitated by the creation of a host of new laws designed to entraps people for a violation of some petty offense. It is that specific wording in the 13th Amendment that has serious consequences for all U.S. prisoners—perhaps more so for prisoners in the southeastern states’ prison systems. Several Southern states’ prison systems reflect the pre-Civil War slave plantation era where prisoners are forced to labor daily in fields planting and harvesting various crops as if they were, in fact, slaves, while other prisoners are forced to labor in menial jobs that also provide for the daily operation and maintenance of prisons. In the U.S. prison system, excluding the injurious effects of field labor, the drudgery of menial labor is universal. It affords no process for the development of human potential.


Throughout the U.S. prison system the search for what it means to be human is permeating the consciousness of prisoners. All forms of anti-human behavior that brought prisoners to prisons are steadfastly rejected and in their place is a new and different quality of being. The self-recognition of human worth has fostered the natural incentive to push back on everything that does not afford the sense of self-respect. Thus prisoners are voicing the need to attack the language of the 13th Amendment that allows for involuntary servitude once people are convicted of a crime. Conscious of the enormity of such an undertaking, prisoners know that unity is power and that unified prisoners have the ability to fundamentally alter the manner in which U.S. prison systems function today.

* A vivid depiction of the period of history following the Civil War that shows the dehumanization of a people is in the book, Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II, by Douglas A. Blackmon (Random House, 2008).


by Robert Taliaferro

“Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”
13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution

An undocumented migrant worker ends up in California, Florida, the Carolinas or in the Midwest to work on a farm. They do jobs that no one else wants and are treated in a fashion that no American would tolerate, often living and working in conditions that are unconscionable. Because they are in the country illegally, they can’t complain.


In the suburbs a legal immigrant is hired as a domestic servant. She signs a contract she might not understand for wages, food, clothing and a place to sleep. What she gets is intolerance, lies and abuse.

Meanwhile, in some small U.S. town, a youth is tired of the abuse they are getting at home and runs away. They too have no resources to fall back on and are subject to predation. Before long they become human trafficking statistics.

The actual nature of these abuses can be found in any number of legal actions and is in plain sight in every state. There are approximately 29 to 30 million people being treated as slaves around the world and anywhere between 300,000 to 600,000 of those individuals are living in the U.S. at any given time.

Economic globalization has contributed to human trafficking becoming one of the largest growing criminal enterprises in the world, which preys on the desire of people to create better lives for themselves and their families.

Generally, when we talk about the condition of slavery, we are drawn to the historical elements which surrounded the enslavement of Black men, women and children in the Americas. Many define the end of government-supported slavery in the U.S. with the Emancipation Proclamation, the enactment of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, or the end of the Civil War.

Few realize that despite the Reconstruction 13th and 14th Amendments, slavery was still alive and well when it came to people confined in this nation’s prisons, to women, workers and even children as the historical application of both amendments had technical—and in the case of prisoners actual—exclusions regarding those particular populations.

The abolition of chattel slavery created a distinct change in the work relationships of emancipated slaves to their former masters and the social and economic strata of the South were drastically altered. The criminal exceptions, however, gave lawmakers in the U.S. South hope; allowing them to create “Black Codes” which were designed to criminalize aspects of life which could be designed to lock up Black people, thus providing a constitutionally protected slave labor force despite the enactment of Reconstruction Amendments. Welcome to Jim Crow.


Congressional records of 1864 and 1865 show that there was an avid debate regarding the broadness of the language in the 13th Amendment. It not only threatened the dominion of the master over their slaves, but it challenged the dominion of the master (white males) over any master/servant relationship, which opponents to the Amendment said included children, wives and apprentices.

Though Black men were given the right to vote by virtue of the 14th Amendment, women of any color were not given those same rights until the passage of the 19th Amendment. Slavery of any form is about economics and control and the Reconstruction Amendments did very little to change those elements.

If we are to create a truly equitable and rational society, we need to stop attempting to rationalize the cultural differences between an apple and an orange and terminate—as a nation and culture—all justifications for even the concept of slavery in any form or fashion, starting with the constraints that still allow slavery to be a part of our current heritage by virtue of the 13th Amendment.

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