Recent years have brought greater attention to the 13th Amendment of the US Constitution, which abolished slavery and involuntary servitude, except as punishment for a crime. The consequences of this legal exception can be seen across US prisons today. Four states do not pay incarcerated workers any wages at all, and the rest pay wages far below the minimum wage. Prisoners are routinely compelled by threat of violence or punishment to work, including through the use of solitary confinement.
While much emphasis has been placed on the 13th Amendment, 25 state constitutions also uphold the punishment exception. This year, 5 states are considering amendments to their constitutions to remove this language. Historian Robert T. Chase joins Rattling the Bars to discuss what altering these state constitutions would really mean for incarcerated people.
Robert T. Chase is associate professor of history at Stony Brook University, State University of New York (SUNY). He is the author of We Are Not Slaves: State Violence, Coerced Labor, and Prisoners Rights in Postwar America (UNC, 2020).
The transcript of this interview will be made available as soon as possible.