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Crime & Justice

Bill Seeks To Amend Texas Constitution To Ban Slavery

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Sangita Menon
/
KUT
David Johnson, a co-founder of the Committee to Abolish Slavery - Texas, discusses the need for a constitutional amendment to abolish slavery, in front of the Texas African American History Memorial on Wednesday.

The 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution bans slavery and involuntary servitude except as a punishment for a crime. Texas lawmakers are proposing an amendment to the state constitution that would ban such forced labor for any reason — including as punishment.

David Johnson, co-founder of the Coalition to Abolish Slavery – Texas, said he hopes a constitutional amendment would end the use of forced labor in the prison system.

Texas Correctional Industries, a for-profit operation within the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, uses unpaid inmate labor to manufacturer things like shoes, soaps and license plates. According to the department's 2019 annual report, TCI made $73.8 million in sales across 33 facilities.

In 2019, state lawmakers failed to pass a bill that would require a minimum compensation of $1 per day for inmates participating in certain work programs. But Johnson says payment isn't the crux of the issue.

“The heart of slavery is being forced to do something that you don’t want to do — and it being deemed OK by the power in place,” Johnson said.

Savannah Eldrige, another co-founder of CAST, said in addition to stopping penal institutions from forcing people to work, the amendment would “help create a pathway for folks who are forced to work to be able to litigate that in the courts.”

Other states have changed their constitutions to ban slavery, including Colorado in 2018, and Nebraska and Utah in 2020. New Jersey may have similar changes on the ballot in 2021. And California, which already bans slavery, may vote in 2022 to also ban involuntary servitude as a criminal punishment.

Johnson said while most people consider slavery a thing of the past, this is important legislation to pass now.

“It’s the first time that I can remember in my life that anybody other than Black people are paying attention to the things that befall everyone, but most of all Black people,” he said.

Black people make up a disproportionately high percentage of the prison population. A 2019 TDCJ report showed 44,082 of the 132,469 people in Texas prisons were Black — or about 33%. Meanwhile, Black people make up just 13% of the state's population.

The bill has yet to receive a committee hearing. But if it passes, it would be up to voters to decide this November whether to amend the constitution.

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