Story by Matthew Giffin | News Editor
In 2013, Rev. Jeannie Alexander, a lawyer turned prison chaplain and activist, had a conversation with Robert Payne, an inmate at Riverbend Maximum Security Institution in Nashville.
The topic was prisons run by private corporations, something that Alexander and Payne were against. “What they’re trading in is literally human flesh,” Alexander said. Payne, who was gray-haired and had served more than 20 years behind bars, was pessimistic that prison reform would happen.
“The only way this is ever going to change is if we get slavery out of our constitutions,” Payne told Alexander.
“Wait, what are you talking about?’ Alexander asked.
“The 13th Amendment, and the same thing in the Tennessee Constitution and a lot of other state constitutions,” Payne explained. “It didn’t abolish slavery.”
Alexander was shocked, but later confirmed that Payne was correct. State law allows those convicted of a crime to be punished with slavery while in prison.
Payne’s statement was simple but had a prodound impact on Alexander. Slavery, other than sex trafficking, was not on her radar. In fact, most people weren’t aware of Tennessee law’s exception clause. A Cornell Law School graduate, Alexander knew she was a smart lawyer, but it took an inmate serving a lengthy sentence to educate her about the legality of slavery, which was influenced by the U.S. Constitution’s own language in the 13th Amendment.
Alexander took Payne’s lesson to heart, ready to stand for something bigger.
Nine years after her discussion with a long-timer at the state prison, Tennessee voters are presented with the choice to preserve a legal exception to slavery, or to unequivocally outlaw the practice by voting for the passage of Amendment 3 on the Nov. 8 ballot.
The Exception Clause
The Tennessee Constitution allows slavery and involuntary servitude as punishments for those convicted of a crime. “That slavery and involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime, whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, are forever prohibited in this statement,” according to Article 1, Section 33.
The proposed amendment would take out the phrase “except as a punishment for crime, whereof the party shall have been duly convicted…” The same wording is found in the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Alexander noted some U.S. senators and representatives are trying to have the wording changed in the national document, but admitted that the process takes longer.
Amendment 3 would affect Tennessee’s treatment of its more than 25,000 state prisoners.
In Tennessee, the effort is going on nine years, and Alexander has been an effective and vocal advocate. After leaving Riverbend in 2014, she founded No Exceptions Prison Collective, a grassroots initiative “advocating that no exceptions be made to the abolition of slavery.”
“I tell people all the time, and I don’t say this in a glib way, I mean this,” Alexander said. “The most profound education I ever received was inside the prison.”
Having a legal background and access to other legal experts, No Exceptions drafted a proposed change for the state legislature to consider, but it has taken many other volunteers to get the job done. Working with No Exceptions to promote passage of the amendment is Kathy Chambers, campaign manager for Vote Yes On 3, a bipartisan campaign to pass Amendment 3 in this midterm election cycle.
Before this job, however, Chambers’ main job was as a criminal defense investigator. She and Alexander had met through their work with prisons and found they shared the same ideals regarding prison reforms.
But their journey to put Amendment 3 on the ballot took nearly six years.
Progress in Congress
There was a reason it took so long. Proposed amendments to the state constitution must be approved by three readings each in the state house and senate, and these readings must be accomplished in two consecutive sessions of the general assembly. A session lasts for two years.
Chambers and Alexander collaborated to choose which state representatives and senators to sponsor their resolution to amend the state constitution. The resolution which was first filed in the state house in March 2017. State records note the resolution was approved by the house in April 2018, a year later and too late to receive the necessary readings for it to be voted on in the state senate.
Consequently, the process had to start over.
Nonetheless, it still passed in the state house with no votes against it, a bipartisan sweep on a major constitutional amendment in a time marked by intense political polarization.
“Our approach to this, and the reason I think it has been successful in Tennessee, of all places, was just to take it on as a moral issue. Period,” Alexander said. “Slavery still exists in our constitution. Slavery is immoral. The only moral response to slavery is abolition. There is no nuance here.”
Alexander, Chambers and their allied legislators began again, introducing another resolution to the 111th General Assembly in February, 2019. This time, the process went by much quicker and passed through the senate and the house in April that same year with no dissenting votes.
“Nothing is bipartisan anymore, and nothing is bipartisan in this state,” Alexander said, commenting on the resolution’s overwhelming success. “This can be. Like, you have to take a stand against this.”
“Fake History” and Other Objections
However, opposition reared up from the 112th General Assembly in 2021, when a companion resolution that would effectively put Amendment 3 on the midterm election ballot received four “no” votes in the senate and two in the house.
The Tennessee Constitution already prohibits slavery, and telling voters that it allows slavery is “fake history,” said State Sen. Brian Kelsey, a Republican from Shelby County who voted against the resolution.
Republican State Rep. Chris Todd from Madison County said likewise.
“Representative, I’ve not understood this entire time this has been running through committee why we’re doing this,” Todd said to State Rep. Joe Towns, a Democrat from Memphis who sponsored the original resolution in 2017. “The prohibition against slavery is already in our constitution. There’s no need to rewrite this.”
But Towns and State Sen. Raumesh Akbari, who co-sponsored the 2019 resolution, responded by saying the current state constitution does allow slavery as a punishment when someone is convicted of a crime. Amendment 3 would eliminate that exception, they said.
Akbari also said Amendment 3 would not “rewrite history,” nor is that what she wants to accomplish.
“I’m very clear that I can go three generations back and trace it to an enslaved person,” Akbari said. “I’m very clear that the 13th Amendment outlawed slavery except for an exception when people are incarcerated or duly convicted of a crime.”
Others raised questions about a new clause Amendment 3 would add to the constitution: “Nothing in this section shall prohibit an inmate from working when the inmate has been duly convicted of a crime.”
State Sen. Mark Pody, R-Lebanon, and Rep. Susan Lynn, R-Mt. Juliet, voiced concerns about the possibility of future lawsuits should Amendment 3 be passed.
“Is your intent to, in any way, ensure that any prisoner who asks to work must be given a job?” Lynn said to Towns during discussion. “But if somebody did sue on their behalf, our jails… could run up against a great cost trying to provide a job for every prisoner who wants one, or just every prisoner.”
Akbari does not believe passing Amendment 3 would result in a future lawsuit. She and Towns both pointed to the Tennessee Department of Correction as the source of the new language and voiced confidence that Tennessee’s jails and prisons would not encounter any lawsuits because of it.
“But this does not say you have to provide a job for them if there’s no work there,” Towns said. “The Department of Correction is gonna be still running their shop.”
Despite opposition, the resolution passed on final readings with bipartisan support in May, 2021.
The Legacy of an Inmate
“I don’t have an idea for what comes next because the only ‘next’ I’m worried about is early voting,” Chambers said. “And then I’m worried about election day. And then on Nov. 9, I’m totally cool with thinking about what might happen next, but right now I have tunnel vision.”
Vote Yes On 3 has support from both sides of the aisle, with 16 state legislators from each party on its advisory board. Mayors from major Tennessee cities like Nashville, Knoxville and Franklin and former Republican Sen. Bob Corker also serve on the advisory board. Various Tennessee chambers of commerce, 200 clergy and other organizations have voiced support for the campaign.
“I am beyond proud of the groups we have put together,” Chambers said. “Like, it’s kind of mind-blowing.”
Nine years after a conversation with her friend at Riverbend, Alexander feels strongly about the work she has done. She said she would be okay if she did nothing else in her life that mattered. The near-decade spent on the amendment change was that important, she said, noting it’s a change that was “hundreds of years in the making.”
“Words matter,” she said about Amendment 3. “This isn’t just language.”
She has one regret: Payne did not live to see the issue go to voters.
On Jan. 18, 2018, after being paroled from Riverbend, Payne was dropping off a friend in Nashville before returning home to cook dinner when he was shot and killed in a carjacking. Two young girls were also killed in the violence, according to reporting from News Channel 5. Payne, father of 10 children, was 70.
Alexander views Payne like family, “like an ancestor at this point.” And to her, the journey to pass Amendment 3 and the effort to universally prohibit slavery in Tennessee was always about her conversation with him in a Nashville prison.“But he’s not here,” Alexander said. “This is part of his legacy.”
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