As ratified, the original amendment has permitted exploitation of labor by convicted felons for over 155 years since the abolition of slavery.
The 13th Amendment “continued the process of a white power class gravely mistreating Black Americans, creating generations of poverty, the breakup of families and this wave of mass incarceration that we still wrestle with today,” Sen.
It would “eliminate the dehumanizing and discriminatory forced labor of prisoners for profit that has been used to drive the over-incarceration of African Americans since the end of the Civil War,” Clay said.
Although nearly half of state constitutions do not mention human bondage or prison labor as punishment, just over 20 states still include such clauses in governing documents that date back to the 19th century abolition of slavery.
This allowed legal re-enslavement of African Americans, who were no longer seen as sympathetic victims of inhumane bondage, said Michele Goodwin, a constitutional law professor at the University of California, Irvine.
Researchers have estimated the minimum annual value of prison labor commodities at $2 billion, derived largely through a system of convict leasing that leaves these workers without the legal protections and benefits that Americans are otherwise entitled to.
And while prison work is largely optional for the 2.2 million individuals incarcerated in the U.S., it’s a grave mistake to disassociate their labor from the original intent of the penal system, Goodwin said.