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Slavery as people usually think of it ended with the Civil War, right? But there are still states that allow slavery and indentured servitude as punishments for a crime. Five states asked voters to close that loophole this week. The ballot measures passed in Alabama, Tennessee, Vermont and Oregon. A measure in Louisiana failed, at least in part due to confusion about the wording of the amendment.
In recent years, there’s been growing scrutiny of how prisons use inmates for labor, said Claudia Flores, a professor at Yale Law School.
“We essentially rely on incarcerated peoples to maintain these prisons, and these people are making sometimes no money, sometimes very little money,” she said.
Some prisons even rent out inmate labor for profit, to pick crops or process poultry. Prisoner advocates say it resembles the Jim Crow-era practice of convict leasing, when states like Louisiana sold the labor of Black inmates to plantations and businesses that could no longer rely on slaves.
“And then there are states that are using prison labor to do jobs that other people wouldn’t want to do, because they’re either dangerous, or they’re difficult for whatever reason,” Flores said.
Like fighting fires or cleaning toxic waste.
But ballot measures banning slavery and indentured servitude might not apply to these situations, said Andrea Armstrong, a law professor at Loyola University New Orleans.
Technically, she said, not all this labor is forced, and so it might not meet the legal definition of slavery … though inmates often don’t have much of a choice.
“They can be punished in lots of different ways that you and I can’t be punished if we were to refuse to work,” she said.
Still, Armstrong said, the measures are drawing attention to an issue that has long been invisible to much of the public.
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