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Let’s take a simple test about the scope of the Thirteenth Amendment to the US Constitution (ratified in 1865).

True or false: the Thirteenth Amendment prohibiting slavery applies to all people.

The correct answer is false.

The thirty-two-word Amendment states the following:

Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to its jurisdiction. (Emphasis added)

The exception for criminals remains unchanged to this date, meaning that slavery is appropriate as punishment for a crime. Inmates in all state and federal prisons are required to work according to their physical ability. For example, the policy in Arkansas states: “You must follow lawful orders. If you violate the rules either by failing to act (such as reporting for work on time) or by acting in ways that are contrary to the rules, you will be disciplined.”

Prisons system depart from the pure definition of slavery by paying inmates for the work they perform. When I was an inmate working in the library at Ironwood State Prison in Blythe, California, I was paid nine cents an hour. Twenty-five percent of my pay was applied to court costs associated with my case. So, working forty hours a week, each month I earned about $14.00 but netted about $11.00.


How Does the Slavery Exception Resurrect and Perpetuate Jim Crow?

Let’s look at history and then determine whether the Thirteenth Amendment is discriminatory.



According to, Jim Crow “refers to a series of racist laws and measures that discriminated against African-Americans” enacted between 1876 and 1965. “Jim Crow was the name of a character in a plantation song in the American south,” and the term became associated with discriminatory laws and customs enforced against African Americans—so much for President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation and the defeat of the South by the North in 1865.

“Jim Crow laws made it difficult for African-Americans to vote [and forced them] to use separate restaurants and bathrooms,” among other subservient decrees. The reference to Jim Crow “is synonymous with bigotry and racism. Even today, when there is racism against African-Americans, people will refer to Jim Crow.”

President Obama referred to Jim Crow laws in a May 2013 commencement address at Morehouse College in Atlanta, Georgia, this way: “For black men in the forties and fifties, the threat of violence, the constant humiliations, large and small, the gnawing doubts born of a Jim Crow culture that told you every day you were somehow inferior, the temptation to shrink from the world, to accept your place, to avoid risks, to be afraid, was necessarily strong.”

Jim Crow thrives in the dark shadows of laws that are the contributing factors to the enslavement of blacks and other people of color, caused by inner-city crime prompted by social and economic isolation; get-tough-on-crime, war-on-drugs policies; and mandatory minimum sentencing— especially disparities in sentencing for crack and powder cocaine possession.

For black people in particular, overt Jim Crow laws have been replaced by repressive laws that target them. The hard-to-dispute result is a disproportionate number of black inmates in the country, as best illustrated by the results of a 2008 NAACP study culminating in these findings:

Racial Disparities in Incarceration

  • African Americans now constitute nearly 1 million of the total 2.3 million incarcerated population
  • African Americans are incarcerated at nearly six times the rate of whites
  • One in six black men had been incarcerated as of 2001. If current trends continue, one in three black males born today can expect to spend time in prison during his lifetime
  • 1 in 100 African American women are in prison
  • Nationwide, African-Americans represent 26% of juvenile arrests, 44% of youth who are detained, 46% of the youth who are judicially waived to criminal court, and 58% of the youth admitted to state prisons (Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice).

Drug Sentencing Disparities

  • About 14 million Whites and 2.6 million African Americans report using an illicit drug
  • 5 times as many Whites are using drugs as African Americans, yet African Americans are sent to prison for drug offenses at 10 times the rate of Whites
  • African Americans represent 12% of the total population of drug users, but 38% of those arrested for drug offenses, and 59% of those in state prison for a drug offense.
  • African Americans serve virtually as much time in prison for a drug offense (58.7 months) as whites do for a violent offense (61.7 months). (Sentencing Project)


Deductive Reasoning

According to, “deductive reasoning is a logical process in which a conclusion is based on the concordance of multiple premises that are generally assumed to be true.”

The Thirteenth Amendment exception to slavery can be applied to black inmates using deductive reasoning like this:

  • All inmates are enslaved by the Thirteenth Amendment exception.
  • There are over 2.3 million inmates in the United States.
  • There are more than one million black inmates in this country.
  • Therefore, the Jim Crow effect enslaves a disproportionate number of blacks in our prisons.

I hope the prison reform issues I’ve raised will jump off the page at you. Reform is desperately needed, including changing the laws governing the drug war, applying nonracist laws designed to impede drug proliferation and other crimes, and closely examining how Jim Crow’s influence continues to permeate law and marginalize blacks who become inmates.

While we were all taught that the Thirteen Amendment did away with slavery, we were not instructed on the exception to the commonly recited rule. Teaching children this nuance of American history is an important act of prison reform—using education as a tool to make an important impression on young minds may just awaken in them the repulsiveness of doing time in a government-sanctioned slave environment.

How did you do on the test? Were you surprised to read that the US Constitution still permits slavery? Please post your comments below.

Image courtesy of 123rf

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