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People laughed when Kanye called for abolishing the ‘trap door’ in the 13th Amendment; now Coloradans are voting on theirs


What you’ll read today

  • Spotlight: People laughed when Kanye called for abolishing the ‘trap door’ in the 13th Amendment; now Coloradans are voting on theirs

  • This Florida county’s sheriff is controversial. But his election won’t be close

  • Lawsuit: Manhattan DA’s office tracks cops with credibility problems, but refuses to release its list

  • USDA quietly funds rural jail construction boom

  • Maryland sheriff, ally of Trump and Fox, faces challenge from the left

  • New hazard of body cameras: explosions

In the Spotlight

People laughed when Kanye called for abolishing the ‘trap door’ in the 13th Amendment; now Coloradans are voting on theirs

After a recent performance on “Saturday Night Live,” rapper Kanye West did more than deliver a pro-Trump rant: He took to Twitter, in Trump fashion, and created controversy by calling for the abolition of the 13th Amendment, which ended slavery in the U.S.

People were outraged.

West later clarified, indicating that he meant the amendment should be amended, not abolished. “The 13th Amendment is slavery in disguise,” he tweeted, “meaning it never ended . . . We are the solution that heals.” Later, during a meeting with the president, West referred to “that trap door called the 13th Amendment.” West seems to have been referring to the amendment’s “exception clause,” the part that allows slavery and involuntary servitude to continue “as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.” If that is the case, West may have had something of a point.

When Congress debated the amendment, anti-slavery Republican Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts spoke out forcefully against allowing slavery to continue in the penal system, urging the Senate Judiciary Committee to remove that language. During floor debates in 1864, Sumner noted that the exact language of the 13th Amendment can be traced to the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, which outlawed slavery in the Northwest Territory—except as a punishment for a crime, at a time when there were no prisons. Why adopt last century’s code of human decency, he asked. He said that in 1787 “it was the habit in certain parts of the country … to doom [people] as slaves for life as a punishment for crime” but in this context, the words “do no good.” [Meagan Flynn / Washington Post]

“Sumner got his told-you-so moment in the years after the amendment’s passage,” writes Meagan Flynn, citing professor Dennis R. Childs, “when states started using the 13th Amendment to re-enslave people convicted of crimes for a term of years, selling them at auction to the highest bidder.” In the Southern states, “tens of thousands of people, overwhelmingly black, were leased by the state to plantation owners, privately owned railroad yards, coal mines and road-building chain gangs and made to work under the whip from dusk till dawn—often as punishment for petty crimes such as vagrancy or theft.” The Oscar-nominated documentary “13th” analyzed the connection between the amendment and the prison-industrial complex. “The 13th Amendment’s exception clause allowed the convict-leasing system to flourish and grow, and it became the dominant form of imprisonment throughout the South,” said professor Robert Perkinson. “[I]t served as a blueprint for the harsh, retributionist imprisonment that became, tragically, the dominant form of American incarceration.” [Meagan Flynn / Washington Post]

Over the summer, prisoners across the country undertook a three-week prison strike, engaging in boycotts, hunger strikes, work strikes and sit-ins. The strikers’ second demand, after improvements to conditions, was “An immediate end to prison slavery,” which was defined as prisoners being paid “the prevailing wage in their state or territory for their labor.” [Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee]  

Every day, more than 800,000 prisoners are put to work, doing cleaning, cooking and lawn mowing. In some states, they are forced to work, and the pay can be as low as 4 cents an hour. The exception clause in the 13th Amendment has been used to defend these practices. [Ed Pilkington / The Guardian

In 2016, Colorado voters had a chance to remove similar language from their state constitution, but they rejected the ballot measure. A bill with similar goals failed the same year in Wisconsin and stalled in Tennessee. Many took the Colorado vote as a message that slavery is still acceptable. Others “believe it failed not because a majority of Colorado voters approve of slavery, but because of a poorly written and confusing question that voters were asked to decide through a “yes” or “no” vote,” reports the Washington Post. When people don’t understand a ballot measure, they tend to vote “no.” The state voter guide included arguments against the measure, but there was no organized opposition. [Kristine Phillips / Washington Post]

But Coloradans are getting a second chance this November. “The language [on the 2016 measure] was extremely confusing,” says Kamau Allen of Abolish Slavery Colorado. “This time we wanted to make it absolutely clear that a ‘yes’ vote was a vote to abolish the exception.” The vote would not change the state’s prison labor programs because corrections facilities pay inmates for their work, albeit less than minimum wage. But proponents say the change is necessary. Jumoke Emery from Abolish Slavery said this change was akin to taking down Confederate monuments: “Bringing down these monuments of our past … is incredibly important to moving forward and healing racial divides.” [Candice Norwood / Governing]

The 2018 measure has received bipartisan support from lawmakers, and Abolish Slavery Colorado has not seen any organized opposition. Richard Collins, a constitutional law professor with the University of Colorado, Boulder, says there would be no immediate legal change, but it could empower some prisoners to take legal action: “I don’t doubt that if it were to pass, some prisoners would invoke the change to try to challenge some conditions in prisons,” he said. “What the courts do with that is then another question.” [Candice Norwood / Governing]

Stories From The Appeal

Photo Illustration by Anagraph / Photo via Chad Chronister Twitter

This Florida County’s Sheriff Is Controversial. But His Election Won’t Be Close. The Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office stands accused of violating immigrants’ rights and dismissing a shocking number of jail deaths. [George Joseph]

Lawsuit: Manhattan DA’s Office Tracks Cops With Credibility Problems, But Refuses to Release Its List. The office has criticized the NYPD for shielding officers’ misconduct histories, but it won’t share its own information on police dishonesty. [George Joseph and Emma Whitford]

Stories From Around the Country

USDA quietly funds rural jail construction boom: “Rural communities are in the midst of a quiet jail boom, financed in part by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA),” according to a report by the Vera Institute of Justice. “Over the last two decades, the USDA has been funding jail construction through a program designed to finance infrastructure like emergency services, hospitals, fire stations, and community centers in agricultural areas. But these funds are now increasingly being directed to helping some rural counties build new, expanded jails, and helping others stay in the business of immigrant detention.” Total overall spending for the Community Facilities program fell by one-third since its peak in 2010, but total funding allocated for jails has increased by more than 200 percent since 2010, especially under the Trump administration. [Jack Norton and Jacob Kang-Brown / Vera Institute of Justice]

Maryland sheriff, ally of Trump and Fox, faces challenge from the left: A Maryland sheriff, who seems to be modeling himself after Joe Arpaio when it comes to immigration, is facing opposition this November from a Democrat who is making the sheriff’s fearmongering and his relationship with ICE into a liability. Sheriff Chuck Jenkins brings in over $4,000 a day by detaining undocumented immigrants in the Frederick County detention center. He takes $83 per detainee per day from the federal government, but spends as little as $17. Even ICE’s office of detention oversight found the facility noncompliant with agency standards on 20 counts in 2013. Democrat Karl Bickel, Jenkins’s challenger, says Jenkins “manages through fear and intimidation” and preys on public concerns about gangs and immigrants that have little impact on real life in the D.C. suburb. Bickel has promised to audit the detention program and the county’s agreement with ICE. [Daniel Moattar / The Guardian]

New hazard of body cameras: explosions: A body-worn camera exploded into flames while a Staten Island officer was wearing it, and the NYPD will remove nearly 3,000 body cameras from use. “The recall of the Vievu-brand LE-5 cameras could delay the department’s plan to outfit all 23,000 patrol officers with body cameras by December, and adds another twist to the complicated history surrounding the mechanisms that have already led to at least one lawsuit over how video from police encounters can be used,” reports Ashley Southall for the New York Times. “The city’s $6.4 million contract for the Vievu cameras set off a contentious debate in 2016 after it surfaced that other police departments had raised concerns about the cameras’ quality, and the city comptroller briefly blocked the deal.” The mayor and police officials defended the selection and moved forward with the plan. The camera that exploded was a Vievu brand LE-5, a model that was introduced a year ago, touting among its features a lithium-ion battery with more than 12 hours of recording time. [Ashley Southall / New York Times]

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