Series: From the President

Slavery Is Still Legal for Two Million People in the U.S.

Nicholas Turner President & Director // Erica Bryant Associate Director of Writing
Jun 15, 2022


Last year, President Biden made Juneteenth a federal holiday, but the United States has yet to acknowledge the direct line from chattel slavery in the fields to forced labor in U.S. prisons today. To finally end this injustice, states must ratify the Abolition Amendment and prohibit forced labor in all circumstances.

The 13th Amendment outlawed slavery except for as punishment for crime. This exception created a financial incentive to criminalize people and steal their labor, and it was exploited almost immediately. Not a year had passed after its ratification when Southern states and localities began to institute Black Codes that criminalized things like “vagrancy” and “walking without purpose.” Under Mississippi’s Black Codes, Black people who did not present proof of employment became “criminals” who could be imprisoned and “leased” to private companies for harsh forced labor.

In the 20th century, the War on Drugs ushered in an era of harsh sentences for non-violent drug crimes that filled prisons with people who could be forced to work for little or no pay. Mass incarceration, and the criminalization of poverty, has created a modern-day abomination—nearly two million incarcerated people in the United States have no protection from legal slavery. A disproportionate percentage of them are Black and people of color.

Every day, incarcerated people work—under threat of additional punishment—for little to no pay. Estimates suggest that a minimum of $2 billion and as much as $14 billion a year in wages is stolen from incarcerated people, to the enrichment of private companies, state-owned entities, and correctional agencies. In five states—Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Mississippi, and Texas—incarcerated people can be forced to work for nothing. Even in more “liberal” states, incarcerated people work for pennies a day. The people who bottled and labeled “NYS Clean” hand sanitizer in New York’s prisons during the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, for example, earned wages that started at $0.16 per hour. In California, incarcerated people who battled fires in 24-hour shifts earned as little as $2.90 per day. Even when work is supposed to be voluntary, incarcerated people who have refused to work report being beaten, denied visits and family phone calls, and placed in solitary confinement.

Ava DuVernay’s 2016 documentary 13th drew much-needed mainstream attention to the fact that slavery is still legal in the United States. Since 2018, Colorado, Nebraska, and Utah have abolished slavery within their borders, joining Rhode Island, which is the only state that fully abolished slavery before the passage of the 13th Amendment. More than 20 states are actively organizing for abolition.

Today, a strong financial motive presses lawmakers to keep things as they are. In discussions of California’s proposed slavery abolition bill, it was noted that it could cost the state billions of dollars if correctional facilities were required to pay minimum wage for the labor of incarcerated people. Using such financial predictions to justify slavery is as morally bankrupt as it was when farmers argued that paying enslaved people would bankrupt the South.

That’s why Vera joins numerous justice-focused organizations and individuals in supporting the Abolition Amendment, a federal bill that would finally outlaw slavery, for everyone, with no exceptions. The Abolition Amendment was introduced by Senator Jeff Merkley of Oregon and Congresswoman Nikema Williams of Georgia and would “prohibit the use of slavery and involuntary servitude as punishment for a crime.”

People who have been convicted of crimes—especially in the unjust U.S. criminal legal system—remain worthy of dignity and human rights. Attempts to dehumanize incarcerated people and justify their mistreatment and enslavement are an ugly latter day reflection of efforts to dehumanize Black people and justify chattel slavery in the early days of this nation.

To learn more about how you can join efforts to abolish modern day slavery and support the Abolition Amendment, visit endtheexception.com. To truly be able to celebrate Juneteenth, we must end slavery in the United States, for everyone, once and for all.