JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) — Tennessee’s constitution still allows “slavery and involuntary servitude” as punishment for crime, and advocates for an amendment to “forever prohibit” them without exception say the measure is important both symbolically and practically.

“Amendment 3” has the active support of the Johnson City Ministerial Association, a coalition of predominantly Black churches, whose leaders are encouraging people to vote “yes” on a change to Article I, Section 33 of Tennessee’s state constitution.

“This amendment is going to remove the negativity from the fragments of slavery, which has caused so many injustices, degraded, demoralized, destructed this society, and it has a very poison and negative connotation to it,” said Charlotte Comage, pastor of St. Paul African Methodist Episcopal Zion church.

Currently, Section 33 reads “That slavery and involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for a crime, whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, are forever prohibited in this state.”

Amendment 3 proposes a change to this language: “Slavery and involuntary servitude are forever prohibited. Nothing in this section shall prohibit an inmate from working when the inmate has been duly convicted of a crime.”

Ten U.S. states currently allow slavery for punishment of crimes, another nine allow “involuntary servitude” for the same reason, and Vermont allows servitude specifically for payment of a debt.

Charlotte Comage, pastor of St. Paul AME Zion Church in Johnson City, Tenn., belongs to a ministerial alliance that is advocating for passage of Amendment 3, which would permanently end slavery or involuntary servitude of any kind in the state. (WJHL photo)

Comage and her colleagues in the alliance say completely removing slavery from Tennessee’s constitution — the measure is among five similar ones nationwide this fall — is more than just an exercise in semantics.

Daryl Carter, an East Tennessee State University (ETSU) history professor and associate dean of equity and inclusion in ETSU’s College of Arts and Sciences, agreed.

Carter said the exception for people allowing involuntary servitude for people convicted of crimes was one way Southern states kept those “fragments of slavery” Comage referred to alive.

“Historically, you think about chain gangs and the exploitation of laborers,” Carter said, referring to so-called “Black codes” in the 80 years of Jim Crow America that followed the end of radical reconstruction in the mid-1870s.

“You can put them in a condition as close to slavery as humanly possible,” Carter said of the opportunities presented by a constitution allowing involuntary servitude and a set of laws that can be deployed selectively.

“You put them into debt, you trump up charges against them over rape or loitering or something else, and then you put them into the system,” he said.

“Symbolism is important, but language is important as well. What the law says, what the Constitution says, what the U.S. Constitution says is very important.”

Comage said Black women have experienced their own particular challenges through the 150-plus years since the 13th Amendment to the United States Constitution prohibited chattel slavery.

“No kind of character status, and it goes opposite to what the Constitution is about regarding freedom,” she said. “Everyone deserves freedom. Everyone should have happiness. Everyone is given the opportunity to do something in this country.”

The criminal justice reform angle

Beyond the symbolic, changes to state constitutions that still allow involuntary servitude are more about criminal justice reform. In fact, of the five states with similar amendments this fall, two (Oregon and Vermont) were non-slave states before the Civil War. The other two are Alabama and Louisiana.

A Pew Research Center article says the efforts are part of what it called a “new abolitionist movement” that “seeks to reshape prison labor.” Colorado, Nebraska and Utah all have approved similar measures within the past several years.

Colorado’s and Nebraska’s simply prohibited enslavement or involuntary servitude outright, with Colorado’s getting 65% support in 2018 and Nebraska’s getting 68% in 2020.

But some people within the criminal justice system, and particularly those in corrections, have expressed concern that the moves could lead to changes in how prisoners are paid for work. After Colorado passed its amendment, the Pew article says, a lawsuit sought higher wages for prison workers (it was dismissed).

Tennessee’s amendment was crafted to avoid that concern and got strong bipartisan support as a result, State Sen. Ramesh Akbari (D-Nashville) told Pew. She added the sentence about not prohibiting inmates from working after the Tennessee Department of Corrections (TDOC) request, the article says.

Carter said he doesn’t take a specific position on the prison work issue, but he said incarcerated Americans are “vulnerable almost by textbook definition.”

Tennessee’s pay for inmates who work directly for TDOC tops out at 59 cents an hour for those considered “highly skilled” and 34 cents an hour for unskilled according to a 2019 TDOC administrative document.

“Captive Labor: Exploitation of Incarcerated Workers” is a 2022 report from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) the Global Human Rights Clinic of the University of Chicago Law School. It outlines in great detail what it claims are immense benefits to states from inmate labor, and the pay and conditions across the country.

Carter said he sees the issue as clearly linked to some of the state constitutional efforts.

“Is it fair to make whatever they make and not adhere to the federal laws regarding minimum wage, and does that equal slavery?”

But he said many Tennessee voters don’t see it the way prison reform advocates do.

“Unless they’ve got a family member or close one that’s in jail, then they tend to car about that a little more, or if they have a philosophical or religious position on the issue they may care a little bit more,” Carter said.

“But historically the American people are afraid of crime, and with crime rising in certain areas across the country … a lot of people don’t want to hear arguments about civility or redemption when they’re worried about losing their house or losing their loved one, or losing their car or being stabbed.”

For her part, Comage said “there is a price to pay when you have done a crime,” but seemed to suggest a conversation about prison work conditions would be worth having.

“Unfortunately we have people in the system that have been penalized with involuntary servitude, working hardly for nothing, and this will help move that in the right direction.”