How Imprisoned People Forced to Pick Cotton Got ‘Prison Slavery’ Bans on the Ballot

On Election Day, voters in Alabama, Louisiana, Oregon, Tennessee, and Vermont will decide whether to close loopholes in their state constitutions allowing the forced labor of incarcerated people.

Louisiana State Penitentiary, also known as Angola, exists at the site of a former slave plantation.

How Imprisoned People Forced to Pick Cotton Got ‘Prison Slavery’ Bans on the Ballot

On Election Day, voters in Alabama, Louisiana, Oregon, Tennessee, and Vermont will decide whether to close loopholes in their state constitutions allowing the forced labor of incarcerated people.

Curtis Davis knows what it’s like to be forced to work while incarcerated. Davis, who helped place measures to ban forced prison labor on ballots in five states this year, served more than 25 years at the Louisiana State Penitentiary, commonly known as Angola.

While there, Davis told The Appeal, he was forced to pick cotton, okra, and other crops but was paid only 2 cents an hour. It was grueling work: He was forced to walk miles to and from the worksite, arriving at 7 a.m. and leaving at 5:30 p.m., frequently laboring in the hot, humid summers of New Orleans.

“It was like I was teleported back in time,” Davis said. Once cleared for work by a prison doctor, people incarcerated at Angola can be legally forced to work—and subject to severe punishment, including solitary confinement, if they refuse. At least as of 2012, most imprisoned people at Angola were required to perform field labor for at least 90 days.

Davis said he saw people suffer from dehydration and exhaustion. Prisoners have complained of a lack of water. When he tried to refuse the work, he was told he could be compelled by force. Desperate, one day he purposefully dropped a weight on his foot to avoid the labor, he said. But when he went to the doctor, he said he was charged with destruction of state property.

“I was like, ‘I know my rights, I’m not a slave,’” Davis said. “And they say, ‘But yes, you are.’”

The Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections did not respond to multiple messages from The Appeal seeking comment on the working conditions at Angola and Davis’s time at the prison.

The 13th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution bans slavery, but has a loophole that often goes unnoticed: Slavery is still allowed “as punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.” Many state constitutions, including Louisiana’s, include similar carveouts. That’s “legal jargon for, ‘if we can get you convicted of a crime, we can put you back into slavery,’” Davis said.

When Davis—now a founding member and executive director of the grassroots criminal justice reform organization Decarcerate Louisiana—was released from Angola in 2016, he swore to do everything he could to repeal the 13th Amendment. But a change to the U.S. Constitution requires approval by two-thirds of each chamber of Congress, as well as ratification by 38 states. To make progress toward those goals, Davis and other advocates are waging a state-by-state campaign to alter state constitutions so that they no longer enshrine slavery for people in prison. Now they face a big test of their efforts: On Tuesday, voters in five states—Alabama, Louisiana, Oregon, Tennessee, and Vermont—will weigh in on ballot measures to amend their constitutions and eradicate slavery.

The language for each measure varies significantly by state. Some proposals appear to be stronger than others. In Alabama, residents are being asked to vote in favor of a much larger revamp of the state constitution that includes eliminating the provision allowing slavery in cases of conviction. A yes vote in Oregon would repeal language allowing servitude for the punishment of a crime, but allow a court to order people into “education, counseling, treatment, community service, or other alternatives to incarceration[.]” Tennessee’s ballot measure proposes amending the constitution to say that “slavery and involuntary servitude are forever prohibited,” but the proposed language contains a carveout noting that the section would not “prohibit an inmate from working when the inmate has been duly convicted of a crime.” Vermont’s language is the cleanest: Voters there would amend their constitution so it simply states that “slavery and indentured servitude in any form are prohibited.”

Davis is the lead organizer for Louisiana’s Yes on 7 campaign, which refers to Amendment 7 on that state’s 2022 ballot. The ballot language there is arguably the most complicated, following efforts by organizers to bring Republican lawmakers on board by trying to clarify that people wouldn’t be able to use passage of the ballot measure to challenge their convictions. Louisiana’s current constitution states that “slavery and involuntary servitude are prohibited, except in the latter case as punishment for a crime.” The updated language, if passed, would still state that “slavery and involuntary servitude are prohibited,” but would include the caveat that the section “does not apply to the otherwise lawful administration of criminal justice.”

Some are concerned a judge could use that to sentence people to slavery or otherwise expand its use. Democratic state Representative Edmond Jordan, who represents Baton Rouge and initially sponsored the proposal, has since turned around and disavowed the measure.

“The way that the ballot language is stated is confusing,” Jordan told the Associated Press. “And the way that it was drafted could lead to multiple different conclusions or opinions.”

Davis disagrees with these arguments. “This is disingenuous at best and intellectually dishonest at worst,” he said at a virtual press conference in October. “If slavery and involuntary servitude are prohibited period, then the otherwise lawful activity of the criminal justice system would be something other than the two outlawed first parts of our amendment.”

Davis and other advocates have lobbied the state legislature to act but have faced repeated defeats. A bill first introduced in 2021 did not make it out of committee. One state representative, Republican Alan Seabaugh, called it one of the most dangerous bills he had seen that session.

Now advocates “want to let the people decide whether or not Louisiana should be a slave state,” Davis said.

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If the ballot measure passes and accomplishes what Davis hopes, it will be a particularly potent symbol. Louisiana has the nation’s highest incarceration rate. And anyone convicted of a felony and sent to prison there is also technically sentenced to “hard labor.” Prison work in the state dates back to before the end of the Civil War, when Louisiana built its first penitentiary and then leased out the prisoners to work for slaveholders. Angola itself is on a former slave plantation, and when the state took control in 1901, those incarcerated were housed in old slave quarters and forced to work in the existing cotton fields.

“Profit—and not rehabilitation, retribution, or deterrence—became the guiding penological goal of Louisiana State Penitentiary,” Loyola University law professor Andrea C. Armstrong wrote in 2012. Angola has a long history of brutal conditions. Clyde Carter filed a lawsuit in 2016 alleging that he was forced to work in the fields even after he injured his knee, while Jason Hacker filed one in which he claimed he was forced to work despite being legally blind due to cataracts in his eyes. In return for this grueling labor, prisoners can be paid just a few cents to $1 per hour.

Angola has also been a site of organizing among incarcerated people. In the 1950s, 31 prisoners cut their Achilles tendons to protest the conditions. After two welders refused to build a lethal injection gurney in the 1960s, 37 others refused work in solidarity. And in 2018, a group of prisoners at Angola went on strike and refused to perform field labor after prisoner Kristopher Schoeing protested working with a back injury, according to other prisoners. “They don’t want to work for free [because it’s] modern-day slavery,” Ron, a prisoner, told The Appeal at the time.

Advocates for eliminating slavery from state constitutions have already experienced some success. In 2018, Colorado voters approved a ballot measure removing such language from their constitution. Voters in Nebraska and Utah did the same in 2020. These measures enjoyed robust support: In Colorado, 65 percent of voters were in favor, while the ballot measures in Utah and Nebraska passed with a 61-point and 36-point margin, respectively. And Colorado lawmakers passed a bill this year that guaranteed minimum-wage protections to prisoners working in an off-site program, although it applies to roughly just 100 people.

The Yes on 7 campaign in Louisiana is scrappy and has few resources. But it’s been deploying all of the tools it can, including media coverage and social media posts. Davis said organizers have blanketed community locations like barbershops, beauty salons, churches, and rotary clubs to talk to people about the issue. A big part of the campaign is simply education—when Davis tells people that slavery is still legal, he said they react with shock.

“I tell them, ‘Man, I was a slave for 25 years in Angola prison,’” Davis said. “‘I picked cotton at the point of a gun.’” He added separately: “We have to spend 10 minutes on that issue sometimes, just trying to get people to understand what it is we’re saying, because it sounds so foreign to everybody.”

The campaign is up against moneyed interests, given that many stakeholders, from private corporations—reportedly including multinational agricultural companies and livestock-auction groups—to the prisons themselves, profit off of prison labor. States may be nervous to end their exceptions to banning slavery out of fear they would be required to pay prisoners minimum wage for their labor. In California, a bill to change the state constitution passed the State Assembly without opposition, but it failed to advance in the state Senate after an analysis by the California Department of Finance found it would cost $1.5 billion to pay prisoners—including those who fight wildfires— minimum wage.

In Oregon, some law enforcement leaders, including Wasco County Sheriff Lane Magill, have come out against that state’s effort to ban prison slavery, known as Measure 112. As part of the Oregon secretary of state’s annual voter guide, the Oregon State Sheriff’s Association said it opposed the measure, since some jail work programs may be considered involuntary servitude under the new language. While not condoning slavery, the group has warned that the measure “will result in the elimination of all reformative programs and increased costs to local jail operations.”

But despite some of the political pushback, Davis is undeterred. He said he hopes to put the same question on 20 state ballots next year. The end goal is to remove slavery entirely from enough state constitutions by 2024 that if those same states voted to ratify an amendment to the U.S. Constitution banning slavery once and for all, it would pass. Advocates have some allies in Congress: In 2020, Oregon Senator Jeff Merkley and former Missouri Representative Lacy Clay proposed legislation to change the 13th Amendment. Despite being introduced multiple times since then, it has yet to make it out of committee.

“It’s only a first step,” Davis said. “This doesn’t correct everything in one fell swoop.” But, he added, “We believe that America can be what it’s supposed to be.”

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