This story was first reported by Louisiana Illuminator and republished with permission.
Last week, Louisiana voters struck down an amendment to its constitution that would have prohibited slavery and involuntary servitude. The four other states where slavery was on the ballot — Alabama, Oregon, Tennessee and Vermont — approved similar referenda. Louisiana was put in the national spotlight for rejecting the change.
Trevor Noah did an entire sketch on “The Daily Show,” mocking Louisiana for voting “against ending slavery.” Correspondent Roy Wood Jr., who is Black, pretended to stand just over the state’s border, joking, “I’m safer here in Mississippi, which is something no Black man has ever said.”
Supporters of Amendment 7 say its rejection should not be interpreted as how people in Louisiana feel about slavery, involuntary servitude or forced prison labor.
‘They confused the issue’
Louisiana missed “the opportunity to change the world for Black progress,” said Curtis Ray Davis II, executive director for the abolitionist group Decarcerate Louisiana. A combination of misinformation, confusing ballot language and the lack of support from the bill’s sponsor made it so people who were against slavery didn’t know how to vote, he said.
“It’s a form of voter suppression,” Davis said. “They confused the issue so people didn’t know what they were voting on.”
Davis served nearly 26 years in Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola. He said he worked in the cotton fields on the sprawling prison property after he received a life sentence for second-degree murder in 1990. He was later allowed to plea down to manslaughter to be released from prison in 2016. Davis maintains his innocence.
While incarcerated, Davis wrote the book, “Slave State: Evidence of Apartheid in America.” Once released, he began fighting to remove slavery and involuntary servitude from the state’s constitution.
“It’s really unfortunate what happened with this constitutional amendment,” said Chris Kaiser, ACLU of Louisiana advocacy director. “I think a lot of people in the state really did want to voice dissent about the way the state uses involuntary servitude as punishment for a crime, and the way that this language was amended during the legislative process made it quite confusing. So I don’t think anybody can look at what happened in the election as a referendum on the use of prison labor in the state.”
‘One of the most dangerous bills’
The original version of the amendment would have simply said slavery and involuntary servitude are prohibited. It would have struck out the exception in Louisiana’s constitution that allowed involuntary servitude as punishment for a crime.
In May 2021, when Rep. Edmond Jordan, D-Baton Rouge, first brought the bill to the Legislature, Rep. Alan Seabaugh, R-Shreveport, called it “one of the most dangerous bills we’ve seen this session.” Seabaugh said he was “afraid this might open the door to a legal challenge for every felony conviction in the state of Louisiana, and that’s just not a can of worms I’m willing to open.” The bill died in a House committee without a vote being taken.
When Jordan brought the bill back this year, Seabaugh and others repeated their concerns that it could affect sentences involving prison labor.
In Louisiana, incarcerated workers earn between 2 and 40 cents an hour, according to a report from the ACLU and the University of Chicago Law School Global Human Rights clinic. At Angola, 75% of incarcerated workers are Black, and many work field crops — including cotton, corn, soybeans and sugarcane — on land originally the site of slave plantations.
“Field laborers work with limited access to water, minimal rest and no restroom facilities, under the supervision of armed correctional officers on horseback,” the ACLU study said.
Debate over the slavery amendment this year didn’t dive deep into prison labor conditions in Louisiana. While Jordan tried to keep the focus on prohibiting slavery and involuntary servitude, Republican legislators on the House Civil Law and Procedure committee discussed whether the proposal would eliminate prison labor entirely.
Rep. Richard Nelson, R-Mandeville, offered a compromise, asking if Jordan would be amenable to adding language Utah used when updating its constitution. Utah had added a subsection to its amendment, stating that the slavery and involuntary servitude ban “doesn’t apply to otherwise lawful administration of the criminal justice system.”
Nelson said it was his understanding that Utah’s bill wasn’t just about symbolically banning slavery but also “having a chain gang and making people go smash rocks.”
“This actually clarifies you can still have a work release program,” Nelson said in a committee hearing, pointing out voters in Utah approved the amendment with more than 80% in favor. “It’s probably not that controversial,” he added.
Jordan agreed to the additional language, and there was an ensuing discussion in which an advocate stressed that the word “except” should not be used in the bill.
“It’s so important that the word ‘except’ not appear in the same sentence as ‘slavery is prohibited,’” said Michael Calhoun from the Promise of Justice Initiative. “It sends a really powerful message and allows the people of Louisiana to reckon with their history in a meaningful way.”
Once the subsection was added, the bill passed the House and Senate unanimously. The ballot language summarizing the bill included the word “except” to bring up the “otherwise lawful administration of criminal justice.”
Author withdraws support
In the months following the bill’s passage, Jordan rescinded his support of the amendment. The House Democratic Caucus followed his lead.
“Because of the ambiguity of how it was drafted, I’m asking that people vote against it, so that we can go and clean it up with the intent of bringing it back next year and making sure that the language is clear and unambiguous,” Jordan said.
“All of a sudden it became this gospel,” said Bruce Reilly, deputy director of Voice of the Experienced (VOTE), an organization that supports the formerly incarcerated. “As if the perfect should be the enemy of the good. We were just like, ‘OK, so you vote no, you leave everything as it is. You vote yes, you give people a chance to argue something in court, right?’”
Reilly said he and other grassroots organizers tried to “put the narrative right” but in his opinion it was too late. The amendment was “doomed.”
“People on TikTok were saying this would expand slavery, and they could take people in pretrial detention and put them to work,” said Reilly, who was formerly incarcerated and became a lawyer once he completed his prison sentence. “No, they couldn’t. The presumption of innocence carries a lot of protection, including the way you could be punished.”
This confusion didn’t happen in Utah with the same language, Reilly acknowledged: “We are in a slave state. All is heightened.”
Criminal justice reform activists expressed frustration with Jordan’s decision to withdraw his support, saying even if the language watered down the intent of the amendment, it could have been a springboard for additional advocacy to end the system of involuntary servitude.
Davis said misinformation spread about the amendment’s language included ice cream maker Ben & Jerry’s weighing in, telling people to vote against it. He called these efforts a “shadow campaign” of opposition.
Advocates said current and formerly incarcerated people had hoped a “yes” vote could have eventually led to workplace protection, proper training and a higher wage for prison laborers. If for some reason the language was used to expand indentured servitude, they believe a lawsuit could have clarified the legislative intent. In their opinion, all of this would have been better than the status quo.
“Instead, they just kept things the same as the last 157 years,” Davis said. “The chances of it getting back on the ballot is nearly impossible.”
Jordan did not respond to multiple requests for comment on the Nov. 8 vote.
Advocates the Louisiana Illuminator spoke with shared Davis’ opinion that it will be tough to pass a simplified version of the bill because it previously failed. But it’s already succeeded in raising awareness about prison labor in Louisiana, they said.
“I’ve talked to more people about prison slavery in the last month than I have in my whole lifetime before that,” said Reilly.
Davis said that despite the outcome, he’s “disappointed but not discouraged.” The day after the election he said he spoke with eight senators from different states that “don’t want to be like Louisiana, falling on the wrong side of history.” Davis is part of the Abolish Slavery National Network, which is ultimately hoping to change the U.S. Constitutional regarding slavery.
“We will not stop this fight,” he said.