“Involuntary servitude”: the possible impact of Amendment 3 on prisoners and beyond


A group photo of No Exceptions Prison Collective in front of the Tennessee State Capitol. (Photo provided by No Exceptions Prison Collective)

Story by Lifestyles Editor Ethan Pickering and Contributing Writer Georgia Smith

At the heart of changing the Tennessee Constitution’s wording on the abolishment of slavery are the state’s approximately 25,000 inmates who live their lives, separated from society, as punishment for crimes committed.

Under the current language of Article 1, Section 33, the constitution allows an exception for slavery among inmates incarcerated in state prisons.

“Slavery still exists in our constitution. Slavery is immoral. The only moral response to slavery is abolition. There is no nuance here,” said Jeannie Alexander, a former lawyer and prison chaplain who was assigned to Riverbend Maximum Security Prison in Nashville for several years. 

The Tennessee Constitution currently states, “That slavery and involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime, whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, are forever prohibited in this state.”

Theeda Murphy, co-founder of No Exceptions Prison Collective. (Photo provided by No Exceptions Prison Collective)

The exception, added to Amendment 13 after the Civil War to appease a number of former slave states, was used to incarcerate many formerly enslaved on minor charges and hire them out. According to Yes on 3, a bipartisan group advocating for approval of Amendment 3 on the Nov. 8 ballot, the state of Alabama got more than 70% of its state revenue from convict leasing in 1898.

“We’re all taught that slavery was abolished. They never abolished slavery; they redefined it. It then sets the stage for the prison industrial complex, which first started off as convict leasing and sharecropping systems and all those things that are designed to make people slaves of the state,” said Theeda Murphy. Murphy and Alexander are co-directors of No Exception Prison Collection which advocates to educate communities about the conditions and objectives of prisons.

“Our goal at No Exceptions is to disrupt and dismantle carceral systems,” said Murphy. “Abolishing slavery fundamentally changes the nature of our society.” 

Incarcerated people, said Murphy, have “gotten the short end of the stick.”

The intent of the change is to not only raise awareness of systemic issues but to also initiate better working conditions for prisoners, Murphy added. She said since inmates can be equated with slaves under the law, the regulations on work are quite limited. For instance, if an inmate turns down work, that can lead to how their credits for parole are accumulated. 

“So many of our institutions rely on people being oppressed and powerless,” said Murphy.

Murphy said that the amendment might not directly change the course of labor, but it will change the environment. Once awareness of this issue spreads, then there will be more development in how prisons operate, she hoped.  

Mary Evins, coordinator of the American Democracy Project at Middle Tennessee State University, supports the removal of the original language that Amendment 3 communicates. 

Evins said that three out of the four new amendments to the ballot, Amendments 2, 3 and 4 are all geared towards bringing more updated choice of wording to the state constitution. 

She is, however, unsure of the immediate actions that Amendment 3 will provide. “To me they (the current and proposed articles) sound pretty similar. I think a constitutional lawyer will have to really look into the intricacies of the wording here,” said Evins. 

Regardless, the overwhelming support of Democrats and Republicans on Amendment 3 has led to consensus, something that hasn’t been seen in many years.

“Nothing is bipartisan anymore, but this is one of those rare things that has support from both sides,” said Alexander.

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