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Slavery Today: The Legacy & Wording of the Thirteenth Amendment

A deeper look into the wording of the Thirteenth Amendment and the effects it has today.

Do elements of slavery persist today? At the conclusion of the American Civil War in 1865, President Abraham Lincoln freed millions of slaves with the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment to the US Constitution. It is this same amendment which abolished slavery over 150 years ago that continues to allow for core elements of involuntary servitude to continue to exist today — a harsh, but very important truth.

Hunter Robbins |

On December 6, 1865, the members of the United States Congress ratified the Thirteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution. The amendment states that “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” There are roughly 1.2 million people incarcerated in the United States today, two-thirds of whom work while being incarcerated. 

Research indicates that incarcerated people receive drastically different treatment, especially concerning their liberties, as a consequence of the wording of the Thirteenth Amendment. According to a 2022 report from The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), “incarcerated people lose the right to refuse to work”  because of the exception clause in the Thirteenth Amendment, which excludes incarcerated individuals from the same protections that other citizens have. According to the report, the same clause also takes away those individuals’ right to a minimum wage, their “right to unionize,” and their right to “workplace safety guarantees.”

Given that incarcerated people do not receive the same minimum wage as other citizens, the question remains: how much do they earn? 

Maison Teixeira, an 18-year-old Brown University freshman, explained that in his fifteen years imprisoned, his father did electrician work and fixed prison lights for “probably like two or three dollars an hour.” Though this estimate from Maison is far below the minimum wage in the US, the actual amount for many incarcerated workers is even lower. According to the 2022 ACLU report, most incarcerated workers only earn between 13 and 52 cents an hour.

“The Thirteenth Amendment is definitely worded in a way that allows for prisoners to be treated like they aren’t human, especially with prison labor and how common it is,” Maison said.

Lawrence Signore, an attorney who focuses on workers’ compensation and has experience in criminal law, confirmed these numbers from his own experience.

 “After having represented people in prisons, I would say 35 to 40 cents an hour,” Signore said. 

Signore’s answer is accurate for workers in his geographical region, the northeast. However, it is important to note that this wage varies significantly across the nation, with several states refusing to pay incarcerated workers entirely. 

To make matters worse, incarcerated individuals are not allowed to keep a substantial portion of the money that they earn. Signore learned through his clients that roughly “60 to 80 percent of prisoner’s earnings are taken by the prison.”

There is also much more to be said about the impact of the Thirteenth Amendment outside of the wages that incarcerated workers can earn. Namely, while the Thirteenth Amendment abolished slavery, it did historically not outlaw criminal punishment or involuntary servitude.

“I am a little surprised at this,” Signore said. “I hope it’s a historical clause that people are cognizant of… and I hope that it’s an artifact.”

Signore’s visits to prisons have allowed him to see the real impact that the Thirteenth Amendment has on the lives of incarcerated people. He described each visit as “an eye-opening experience” where incarcerated individuals “don’t have a lot of autonomy” in their daily lives. He is also skeptical about what rights are given to prisoners in practice, sharing that they have an “extreme curtail of privileges” even down to being unsure about if medical diets are accommodated. 

Signore said that the wording of the Thirteenth Amendment may also be particularly concerning as it might potentially violate other amendments in the Constitution. 

The Eighth Amendment — stating that “[e]xcessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted” — seems to be violated by the Thirteenth Amendment, an amendment that allows for the exploitation of incarcerated workers and enables a type of  “cruel and unusual” punishment, said Signore.

Signore believes that parts of the Thirteenth Amendment need to be revised, arguing that the current wording of the amendment “is socially insensitive.” 

As it stands, the Thirteenth Amendment is worded in such a way that allows for the exploitation of incarcerated people. Recognizing the victimization of incarcerated workers gives insight into the necessary changes to ensure that the rights of all people are protected.

Yale University Professor Rasheed Tazudeen, specializing in the intersection of ecology and race, gave further insight into what changes should be made. 

“Wages as a start, but a more systematic approach moving forward,” Tazudeen said. “This includes undoing the entire for profit approach that the prison system has.” 

It can be hard to envision such a systemic change, and removing the exception clause may seem like a more attainable and immediate solution. However, Tazudeen argues that this might not necessarily solve the problem and emphasizes the importance of approaching the issue with a more holistic perspective. 

The reality is that the United States prison system is one that, according to Tazudeen, “uses Black laboring bodies for profit more than any other country.” At 693 incarcerated people per 100,000 individuals, the United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world — 4.7 times higher than the United Kingdom, the second leading nation. 

Tazudeen reasons that its wording leaves room for “interpretations of slavery beyond what was intended.” 

Within the context of its inception, the Thirteenth Amendment did advance the legal protections for human rights, as it forced an immediate end to American chattel slavery. However, with the presence of the exception clause, certain principles of chattel slavery — such as the restriction of their rights and forced labor — continue to exist today. With this outdated clause, a history of slavery hoped to leave in the past continues to play a role in the present.

Writer’s Reflection

My decision to write this article came partly from past research. In high school, I wrote an extended research paper on the War on Drugs and its ties to Mass Incarceration. I wanted to learn more about the prison system and gain public opinion on the topic, which is what I was able to do with this piece. Through my research, I learned more about the issues stemming from the Thirteenth Amendment—specifically how subtle usage of language can alter the lives of millions. With so many impacted lives at stake, matters regarding the law require meticulous attention to detail, and something as simple as wording an amendment inaccurately can make such lives insufferable.

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