Voters in Alabama, Louisiana, Oregon, Tennessee and Vermont are voting next month on measures that will eliminate an exception to prohibitions against slavery or involuntary servitude when forced labor is part of the punishment for a crime. In Alabama, for example, the State Constitution would be amended to remove an exception that allows involuntary servitude “for the punishment of crime.” The U.S. Constitution also has an“exceptions clause” that allows convicted criminals to be forced into involuntary servitude.
The clause is found in the 13th Amendment, which was ratified in 1865: “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.”
If such a measure passes, forced prison labor could be challenged a a violation of Constitutional rights. “We do not need to enslave people in order to punish them,” the New York Times quotes on former prisoner and an advocate of the proposed legal changes as saying, a typical example of lazy advocacy. No, we don’t need to make prisoners work as part of the prison experience. That’s not the issue. The question is whether society is acting unethically when it does so. Right now, absent an elimination of the prison exceptions to involuntary servitude, the practice is legal.
Your Ethics Alarms Ethics Quiz of the Day is….
Is it unethical to make prisoners work while incarcerated for little or no compensation?
Some points as you ponder this:
- The American Civil Liberties Union reported this year that prisoners produced more than $2 billion in goods annually and provided more than $9 billion worth of services while being paid an average of 13 to 52 cents per hour.
- My reaction to that: GOOD. Incarcerating criminals costs society a lot of money that could be used more productively. Crime forces society to spend money on law enforcement, courts and social services. I see nothing unethical in making criminals who have been apprehended and proven guilty help reimburse society while serving prison time.
- Many former prisoners oppose eliminating prison work because it allows them to learn new skills and have something productive to occupy their time.
I have never had an ethics problem with society deciding that those who refuse to abide by the laws and rules of the social contract may forfeit “unalienable rights,” including the rights to liberty, voting, and when appropriate, life itself. I view these ballot initiatives as another feature of the surging “decriminalize crime” fad as part of the assault on imagined “systemic racism.”