Slavery in Louisiana’s prisons? This lawmaker wants voters to outlaw forced labor for good

A state lawmaker said Wednesday that slavery is alive and well in Louisiana’s prison system and put forward legislation that would ask voters to abolish forced labor practices for good. 

House Bill 196, sponsored by Rep. Edmond Jordan, D-Baton Rouge, proposes amending the state’s Constitution to make involuntary servitude illegal in all cases. Louisiana’s Constitution currently bans the practice — except when used as punishment for those convicted of a crime.  

Louisiana’s prisoners do all sorts of work, often for only a few cents an hour, ranging from agricultural labor at Angola — itself a former slave plantation — to janitorial work at the statehouse and Governor’s mansion. 

It’s unclear what the immediate impact would be of removing the so-called “slavery exception clause” from the state Constitution, but Jordan said its mere placement on the ballot would hopefully spark substantive conversations about ways to reform Louisiana’s prison system. 

“Anyone of good conscious should be embarrassed by this…should be appalled by this…should want to see this go away,” Jordan said. “But I’m not a fool to think that everybody is of good conscious. I’m sure for as easy as a lift as this should be, that some will make up reasons to oppose it.”

Curtis Ray Davis II spent several years working at a quail barn while incarcerated at Angola, making just two cents an hour. After two decades of work, Davis received $1,200. He described himself Wednesday as a “modern day ex-slave.”

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“I spent 25 years in slavery. It was traumatizing, it was painful, physically and mentally. I felt sub-human, demeaned, socially dead,” said Davis, executive director of Decarcerate Louisiana, which advocates for prison reform. “I just don’t believe that Louisiana and the United States should be in the business of legalized slavery.”

The language in Louisiana’s Constitution mirrors that of the 13th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which abolished slavery and involuntary servitude, except for those convicted of a crime, when it was ratified in 1865 following Civil War.

At least four states — Rhode Island, Nebraska, Colorado and Utah — have abolished all forms of slavery, with a dozen others considering legislation similar to Jordan’s H.B. 196, said Max Parthas, an activist with the Abolish Slavery National Network. 

“For 156 years we’ve been dealing with everything from convict leasing to chain gangs to for-profit prisons to private prisons to warehousing bodies and all of it has turned everybody who has went into those buildings into property,” Parthas said. “It happens the minute you’re duly convicted of a crime.” 

If approved by the legislature, the constitutional amendment would appear on the ballot in November 2022 and would need support from a majority of voters for approval. 

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