City Council urges Congress to end forced labor in prisons

City Council unanimously passed a resolution Thursday urging Congress to strike the slavery clause from the U.S. Constitution.

The move supports Senate Joint Resolution 21 and House Joint Resolution 53. These pieces of legislation introduced by U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley and U.S. Rep. Nikema Williams propose a constitutional amendment that would end forced labor in U.S. prisons.

While slavery was abolished in 1865, the “slavery clause” in the 13th Amendment allows forced labor to continue as punishment for a crime. This resulted in Southern localities implementing “Black Codes” – laws which criminalized things like loitering and vagrancy – as a way to imprison and continue to profit off of the unpaid labor of Black Americans. Today, forced labor continues as a common practice in U.S. prisons.

“As a Black woman who comes from a working class community, where families are broken apart and lives destroyed due to over-incarceration, I know well the widespread impacts the prison industrial complex has on families in neighborhoods like mine,” said At-Large City Councilmember Kendra Brooks, who introduced the resolution.

“And we can’t decarcerate our country unless we eliminate the financial incentive to keep Black and brown, working class and poor people in prison.

“There should be no loopholes to abolishing slavery and it’s time we ended forced labor in all forms and gave our incarcerated neighbors the labor protections that all community members are owned,” Brooks said. “No one in Pennsylvania should work for 38 cents per hour. No corporation should profit off of and encourage prison labor to make up for labor shortages or increase their profit margins.”

“While the ratification of the 13th Amendment was a watershed moment for our nation, it did not fulfill the entirety of its purpose,” Merkley said in a news release.

“Slavery was abolished – except as a punishment for a crime. And that loophole led to the weaponization of the justice system against Black and brown Americans. We must bring our Constitution into the modern era and make clear that slavery has no place in the supreme law of the land. Councilwoman Brooks’ resolution has my full support, and I will continue fighting in the U.S. Senate to close that heinous loophole once and for all.”

During the Council session, community advocates, legal experts and directly impacted individuals expressed their support.

“We’ve heard about the 2.3 million incarcerated people. But we don’t hear enough about the 900,000 people who are forced to work,” said Chenjerai Kumanyika, assistant professor of Rutgers University’s Department of Journalism and Media and steering committee member of 215 People’s Alliance.

“This resolution points out that they are not protected by minimum wage and workplace safety laws that help to keep other Americans safe on the job. States like Nebraska, Utah, Colorado have taken steps to close their slavery loopholes and it’s time for a city like Philadelphia to step up.”

“Being incarcerated has already taken people’s freedom away,” said Jared Cooper, who was formerly incarcerated. He also leads the Youth Art & Self Empowerment Project.

“It is a mirror image of slave labor, with unfair pay, no incentives, and no dignity,” Cooper said. “If people are working, let them work towards something. … I believe eliminating this practice will make our communities safer and more equitable.”

Michael Coard, criminal legal defense attorney and college professor, said Brooks should be commended for taking this initiative in Philadelphia.

“We need to understand the history of the 13th Amendment,” he said. “It actually states, slavery as a punishment for crime shall exist in the U.S.

“We always have to go to the root of the problem. This slavery-promoting language, I should mention, was co-authored in Congress by racist traders, including the former Confederate slave traders. This was a document that was written 156 years ago to protect the institution of slavery and those who benefit from it. Now, in 2021 it’s time to end that.”