Racial Justice Project

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The 13th Amendment to the United States Constitution purported to abolish the institution of slavery, but it created an exception for compulsory labor performed by people convicted of crimes. In November 2022, voters in Alabama, Vermont, Louisiana, Tennessee, and Oregon will be asked to vote on ballot initiatives that would strike language from their state constitutions that currently allows states to force incarcerated people to perform labor with minimal or no pay.1 This policy brief examines the legal language of these ballot initiatives and evaluates whether each measure, if approved by voters, will actually close the compulsory labor loophole. In addition, this policy brief focuses on the particular impact that these measures may have on incarcerated women of color.

This policy paper examines the legal language, legislative history, and practical effect of each of the ballot initiatives that aim to change state laws relating to prison labor, with an emphasis on how these proposals could impact incarcerated women. This paper presents a gendered analysis of compulsory prison labor by focusing on the reality that women, in comparison with men, are more likely to encounter a particular form of compulsory prison labor: being forced to perform work assignments during pregnancy and immediately after giving birth. Performing compulsory work assignments without proper accommodations while pregnant or postpartum can lead to negative physical and mental health outcomes, including death.