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Will Sutton: Louisiana’s slave labor and slave wages must be abolished. We have a say. Do we want to enslave people?



MONROE, La. – Louisiana supports slave labor and slave wages. The question is whether our state Legislature and voters do, too.

Imagine fighting for slavery these days. Imagine arguing that some people are inferior, and therefore some of us should relegate them to menial and other tasks for nominal wages. Imagine being forced to work, and doing the work for a non-negotiated wage that amounts to pennies per hour.

If state Rep. Edmond Jordan, D-Brusly, gets what he wants, he’ll get enough support in the Legislature to allow voters to amend the Louisiana Constitution to make involuntary servitude a thing of the past.

Compared to a number of other legislative measures, a bill Jordan filed would simply strike a few words to eliminate a practice that he and prison reform advocates find unacceptable and ask Louisiana voters to approve the elimination of slavery for any purpose. Our constitution bans slavery — except when it is a part of punishment for people in prison because they’ve been convicted of a crime. If Jordan’s joint resolution is approved, the “individual dignity” language would simply read, “Slavery and involuntary servitude are prohibited,” dropping “except in the latter case as punishment for crime.”

According to Abolish Slavery National Network, a prison reform group, Rhode Island, Nebraska, Colorado and Utah have gotten rid of slavery in all forms. That leaves a lot more states supporting enslaving people in one form or another, including Louisiana.

For years, we’ve accepted the idea that people in prison should work if they have the chance to work as a part of their rehabilitation and restitution. Not every person in prison gets to work. Those who do may work on farms and do other agricultural-related tasks. They cook. They make various products, including license plates, office furniture and clothing. They do janitorial work at the State Capitol, the Governor’s Mansion and elsewhere. They do it for far less than the minimum wage.

Some of them might speak favorably about the opportunity because it gets them out of small prison cells and spaces where their movements are limited. Others might see it for what it is and call it darn-near free labor because they got convicted of doing something wrong.

This hasn’t been a liberal-progressive versus conservative-traditional matter elsewhere. Democrats and Republican legislators in other states have agreed to scrap the provisions, and so have voters.

Colorado was the first state to abolish this type of labor and wages. In November 2018, that state stripped the state’s constitution of the “except as a punishment” language. The measure had bipartisan support and it received about 65% of the vote, significantly more than the 55% required to pass the amendment. Colorado advocates said it had such broad support because times have changed since the prison conviction language was included. When these caveats were written and included in state constitutions, incarcerated people were not viewed as humans with dignity, people who had been convicted of a crime but individuals who have not lost their humanity, prison reform advocates say.

In November, Nebraska and Utah voters agreed to delete language from their constitutions allowing slavery-like work conditions as a punishment for criminal convictions. Utah voters approved with 81% of the vote. Nebraska voters approved with 68% of the vote.

If Jordan’s measure moves forward, Louisiana voters would say yea or nay to continuing this practice through a November 2022 ballot measure. Though it’s not clear how such a moral correction might impact work for imprisoned people, it certainly would cause us to consider alternative, more humane methods. Details can be discussed, debated and hammered out.

We, too, can agree that enslaving people and having them earn pennies is wrong. I’m we can come up with something better.