“Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime

whereof the party shall have been duly convicted,

shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”

–The 13th Amendment of the United States Constitution, Section 1

By Mika’il DeVeaux, Ph.D.

A cursory review of literature related to the historical context giving rise to the targeted incarceration of Black men in the U.S. suggests that very few contemporary scholars make the link between the U.S. system of slavery and the U.S. system of imprisonment. Among those that do, they tend to focus upon racism and its impact on social policies around the justice system while briefly mentioning the slave system in discussions related to the historical context put forth for readers to review (Alexander, 2010; Christianson, 1998; Perkinson, 2010). They do not, however, call for any legislative action that focuses squarely on the United States Constitution, the foundation of today’s justice system. As I understand them, current policies are not enough to reframe justice matters in the United States. Moreover, existing policies are not designed to influence how we think about reentry and those affected by these policies (See Second Chance Reauthorization Act and First Step Act).


Although the politics of hyper-incarceration in the contemporary U.S. has affected Americans of all races, ethnicities, and classes, it has depended from its inception on the demonization and criminalization of Black and Brown people. The 13th Amendment of the US Constitution includes a legislative loophole that provides the means to continue, in a legal way, the institution of slavery such that corporations, federal and state governments, rather than private citizens, are official slaveholders. Prior to the enactment of this law, the US economy had a significant agricultural base supported by free slave labor. Slavery was clearly race-based as was the application of laws that targeted newly “freed” Black people (namely the Black Codes). These laws, old and new, fuel the mass and disproportionate incarceration of Black people. The 13th Amendment, laws emerging from its ratification (Black Codes, Pig Laws, Jim Crow Laws), and the resultant social order (segregation) have been used as tools to enforce discrimination based on class, race, place, and more recently gender.


What seems clear is that there is a relationship between justice matters and racial constructions about White superiority and Black inferiority. This relationship fuels the continued exploitation and disproportionate incarceration of Black and Brown bodies. Moreover, the relationship does not permit the enjoyment of all the rights and attributes of citizenship by people of color in general and justice involved people in particular. It seems illogical to omit these factors from any historical overview related to incarceration or the reentry of the today’s prison population because persons of color continue to be targeted and disproportionately incarcerated even after having gone through the system. This law (the 13th Amendment) details in unambiguous language a function of state-sanctioned punishment for those convicted of a crime that does not relate to the traditional functions of punishment associated with imprisonment: reformation (or rehabilitation), incapacitation, retribution, and deterrence. The criminal justice system is unmistakably a system of slavery and involuntary servitude.


Attitudes held about people convicted of crime result from person-centered or reformist approaches (Miller, Miller, Djoric, & Patton, 2015; Stahler, Mennis, Belenko, Welsh, Hiller, & Zajac, 2013) that are closely linked to justifications given for the enslavement of people of color in the United States, specifically, religious, pseudo-scientific, and a white supremacist ideology. The reentry population is the same population subjected to mass incarceration. It seems, then, that discussions about the causes of crime, the social construction of the convicted as pathological, labeled as deviant and as “other,” frame this issue as well. I would argue that any policy approach seeking to address any aspect of the justice system, including the problem of reentry, that does not reference and include in its analysis mention of the 13th Amendment and a call to challenge it as it currently stands is not worthy of serious consideration.


I am compelled to highlight this connection and encourage efforts to reframe discussions around justice matters and viewpoints related to the social problem of reentry with the 13th Amendment as part of the historical foci. Using the 13th Amendment as a starting point, policy discussions must begin with the agreement that the US prison system is a slave-based system according to the US Constitution irrespective of arguments to the contrary and that it is a tool of state-sanctioned punishment. Any honest analysis would draw attention to and question the use of private prisons. It seems necessary to ask whether private prisons that compete for a share of the prison market are in the best interest of taxpayers, the government, and those housed there or whether, like slavery, they have been established to profit from mainly Black and Brown bodies.


Thus, in coalition with a host of individuals and organizations, Citizens Against Recidivism, Inc. and Columbia University are organizing a national working dialogue that will take place at Columbia University on February 22, 2019. The goal of the dialogue is to develop strategies that will increase public awareness, fuel public discourse, and galvanize momentum to amend the 13th Amendment to the United States Constitution. Calling ourselves the Amend the 13th Coalition, we will convene a conversation among a diverse group of thought leaders, grassroots organizations, academics, and students on our campaign to strike the Punishment Clause from the 13th Amendment. The conversation will have three principal goals:


1)  to offer participants a critical introduction from formerly incarcerated persons, legal experts, and academics to the ongoing violation of human and constitutional rights that the Punishment Clause makes possible, and its consequences for the future of racial and economic democracy in America;


2)  To understand the devastating consequences that the expropriation of human labor by the U.S. carceral state has had and continues to have on the economic and political development (and underdevelopment) of Black and Brown communities;


3) To learn from panelist and the audience the possible role that they can exercise in changing the language and vision and eventually the course of the conversation about our nation’s punitive prison politics and abolishing the American system of punishment, as we know it.


The conversation aims to conclude with a people’s manifesto that provides opportunities for coalition building and advocacy towards amending the 13th Amendment and abolishing the punishment clause. The campaign has two goals: 1) the abolishment of the punishment clause of the 13th Amendment and 2) to establish a truth and reconciliation commission to begin steps toward national healing.

To RSVP for the conferences send

email to info@citizensinc.org


Alexander, M. (2010). The new Jim Crow: Mass incarceration in the age of colorblindness. New York: New Press.

Christianson, S. (1998). With liberty for some: 500 years of imprisonment in America. Boston, MA: Northeastern University Press.

Miller, R. J., Miller, J. W., Djoric, J. Z., & Patton, D. (2015). Baldwin’s Mill race, punishment, and the pedagogy of repression, 1965–2015. Humanity and Society39(4), 456-475.

Perkinson, R. (2010). Texas tough: The rise of America’s prison empire. New York: Metropolitan Books.

Stahler, G. J., Mennis, J., Belenko, S., Welsh, W. N., Hiller, M. L., & Zajac, G. (2013). Predicting recidivism for released state prison offenders examining the influence of individual and neighborhood characteristics and spatial contagion on the likelihood of reincarceration.  Criminal Justice and Behavior40(6), 690-711