Louisiana voters on November 8 rejected an amendment to the constitution that would have outlawed slavery and involuntary servitude.
The four other states where slavery was on the ballot — Alabama, Oregon, Tennessee, and Vermont — approved similar referendums. Louisiana was thrust into the national spotlight for opposing the change.
Trevor Noah did an entire skit on The Daily Show, mocking Louisiana for voting “against ending slavery.” Correspondent Roy Wood Jr., a black man, pretended to be just across the state line and joked, “I’m safer here in Mississippi, no black man has ever said that.”
Supporters of Amendment 7 say his rejection should not be interpreted in the way the people of Louisiana feel about slavery, involuntary servitude, or forced prison labor.
“You got the topic mixed up”
Louisiana “missed an opportunity to change the world for black advancement,” said Curtis Ray Davis II, executive director of the abolitionist group Decarcerate Louisiana. A combination of misinformation, confusing voting language and a lack of support from the bill’s sponsor meant that anti-slavery people didn’t know how to vote, he said.
“It’s a form of voter suppression,” Davis said. “They got the topic mixed up so people didn’t know what they were voting on.”
Davis served nearly 26 years at Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola. He said he worked in the cotton fields of the sprawling prison compound after being sentenced to life in 1990 for second-degree murder. He was later allowed to plead manslaughter to be released from prison in 2016. Davis maintains his innocence.
While incarcerated, Davis wrote Slave State: Evidence of Apartheid in America. After his release, he began fighting to get slavery and involuntary servitude removed from the state’s constitution.
“It’s really unfortunate what happened with this constitutional amendment,” said Chris Kaiser, the ACLU of Louisiana’s advocacy director. “I think a lot of people in the state really wanted to express dissent about how the state uses involuntary servitude as a punishment for a crime, and the way that language was changed during the legislative process made it quite confusing. So I don’t think anyone can consider what happened in the elections as a referendum on the use of prison laborers in the state.”
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“One of the most dangerous bills”
The original version of the amendment would have simply said that slavery and involuntary servitude are forbidden. It would have eliminated the exception in Louisiana’s constitution that allowed involuntary servitude as a punishment for a crime.
When Rep. Edmond Jordan, D-Baton Rouge, first introduced the bill to lawmakers in May 2021, Rep. Alan Seabaugh, R-Shreveport, called it “one of the most dangerous bills we’ve seen in this session.” Seabaugh said he was “concerned that this could open the door to a legal challenge for any felony conviction in the state of Louisiana, and that’s just not a can of worms that I’m prepared to open.” The bill died in committee of the House of Representatives without a vote taking place.
When Jordan brought back the bill this year, Seabaugh and others reiterated concerns that it could affect sentences related to prison labor.
In Louisiana, incarcerated workers make between 2 and 40 cents an hour, according to a report by the ACLU and the University of Chicago Law School’s Global Human Rights Clinic. In Angola, 75% of imprisoned workers are black, and many work crops — including cotton, corn, soybeans and sugarcane — on land that was originally used as slave plantations.
“Field workers work under the supervision of armed correctional officers on horseback with limited access to water, minimal rest periods and no toilet facilities,” the ACLU study said.
This year’s debate on the Slavery Amendment did not delve deeply into the working conditions of Louisiana prisons. While Jordan tried to focus on outlawing slavery and involuntary servitude, Republican lawmakers in the House Committee on Civil Justice and Procedures debated whether the proposal would abolish prison labor entirely.
Rep. Richard Nelson, R-Mandeville, offered a compromise, asking if Jordan would be willing to add the language Utah used when updating its constitution. Utah had added a subsection to its amendment that said the prohibition on slavery and involuntary servitude “does not apply to the otherwise lawful administration of the criminal justice system.”
Nelson said it was his understanding that Utah’s bill was not just about outlawing slavery symbolically, but also “having a chain gang and getting people to break rocks.”
“This actually goes to show that you can still have a work release program,” Nelson said in a committee hearing, noting that Utah voters passed the change by more than 80%. “It’s probably not that controversial.”
Jordan agreed to the additional language, and a discussion ensued in which an attorney emphasized that the word “except” should not be used in the bill.
“It’s so important that the word ‘except’ doesn’t appear in the same sentence as ‘slavery is forbidden,'” said Michael Calhoun of 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.”
After the subsection was added, the bill passed the House and Senate unanimously. Voting language summarizing the bill included the word “except” to address the “otherwise lawful application of criminal justice.”
Author withdraws support
In the months following the passage of the law, Jordan rescinded his support for the amendment. The House Democratic Caucus followed suit.
“Because of the ambiguity of how it was designed, I’m asking people to vote against it so we can go ahead and clean it up with the intention of bringing it back next year and making sure the language is clear and unambiguous,” Jordan said .
“Suddenly it became this gospel,” said Bruce Reilly, associate director of Voice of the Experienced (VOTE), an organization that supports ex-prisoners. “As if the perfect should be the enemy of the good. We just said, ‘Okay, so you vote no and leave everything as it is. You vote yes, you give people a chance to argue something in court, right?’”
Reilly said he and other base organizers tried to “fix the narrative” but felt it was too late. The change was “doomed to fail”.
“People on TikTok were saying this would expand slavery and they could take people into custody and put them to work,” said Reilly, who was formerly incarcerated and became a lawyer after serving his sentence. “No, they couldn’t. The presumption of innocence offers a lot of protections, including how you might be punished.”
This confusion did not exist in Utah with the same language, he acknowledged. “We are in a slave state. Everything is exalted.”
Criminal justice reform activists have expressed frustration with Jordan’s decision to withdraw his support, saying even if the language had watered down the intent of the change, it could have been a springboard for additional advocates to end the involuntary servitude system.
Davis said misinformation about the amendment’s language was spreading, including ice cream maker Ben & Jerry’s urging people to vote against it. He called these efforts a “shadow campaign” by the opposition.
Advocates said current and ex-prisoners had hoped a “yes” vote could eventually lead to job protections, proper training and higher wages for prison workers. If for some reason the language was used to extend indentured bondage, they believe a lawsuit could have clarified legislative intent. All of that would have been better than the status quo, in her opinion.
“Instead, they just kept things the way they have been for the past 157 years,” Davis said. “The odds of it getting back on the ballot are near impossible.”
Jordan did not respond to multiple requests for comment on the November 8 vote.
Supporters of the Louisiana Illuminator spoke with Davis’ opinion that passing a simplified version of the bill will be difficult because it had previously failed. But it has already succeeded in raising awareness of prison work in Louisiana, they said
“I’ve spoken to more people about prison slavery in the past month than I have in my entire life,” Reilly said.
Davis said that despite the result, he was “disappointed but not discouraged.” The day after the election, he said he spoke to eight senators from different states who “don’t want to be like Louisiana and got on the wrong side of history.” Davis is part of the Abolish Slavery National Network, which ultimately hopes to change the US Constitution regarding slavery.
“We’re not going to end this fight,” he said.
— The Louisiana Illuminator is an independent, nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization driven by its mission to shed light on how decisions are made in Baton Rouge and how they affect the lives of everyday Louisians.