Black voters in Louisiana are confused. Many are embarrassed. Some are angry. All seem concerned about how their state is perceived after a constitutional amendment to abolish slavery and forced labor failed to pass the November election.
That may be partly because the lawmaker who wrote the bill allowing voting changed tack and worked to kill him.
Four other states — Alabama, Oregon, Tennessee, and Vermont — passed similar laws, effectively ending “slave labor” in prisons. However, Louisiana did not vote for the constitutional amendment introduced by Rep. Edmond Jordan, a black politician known for fighting for black causes like limiting police officers’ immunity in civil suits.
In an unusual turn of events, Jordan launched a campaign last summer to have an amendment he had drafted failed. His original bill read, “Slavery and involuntary servitude are forbidden.” With that language, it was clear that the law would have erased the 138-year-old exception in the Louisiana Constitution that allowed involuntary servitude as a punishment for a crime.
But Jordan agreed to an amendment to the bill that said the portion of the constitution “prohibiting slavery and involuntary servitude” does not “apply to the otherwise lawful administration of criminal justice.” That section, Jordan said, caused confusion for him and voters and raised some questions about whether the second part of the bill “nullified the first part.”
“Are they trying to get us to vote for slavery?” asked John Miles, a 41-year-old black truck driver in Monroe. “Why would you make it so confusing?” He said he voted no because of the ambiguity.
Ultimately, the change failed with 61% no votes.
Jordan agreed that the amendment would not pass, although many black voters disagreed. The measure received more “no” than “yes” votes in all 64 municipalities in the state. Some of those voters, like Baton Rouge’s Todd L. Sterling, say the passage of the measure represented progress rather than leaving slavery and forced labor in place. Its failure is a remnant of a time many would like to forget.
“It was a tricky math to read if you hadn’t done some homework,” said Sterling, owner of Alpha Media and Public Relations, an advertising agency in the state capital. “It really affects the penal system in Louisiana, renting people out, which is modern slavery. If you are unfamiliar with the subject and how the prison system treats inmates like slaves, you wouldn’t really think this is a big problem.”
But it’s in Louisiana where inmates at the state penitentiary, nicknamed Angola, do “slave labor” after the former plantation on which the prison was built. According to a report by the American Civil Liberties Union and the University of Chicago Law School’s Global Human Rights Clinic, prisoners there earn between 2 cents and 20 cents an hour, with many working in the fields of crops like sugar cane, corn, soybeans and, yes, soybeans , Cotton.
And black prisoners make up 74% of Angola’s prison population.
“Field workers work under the supervision of armed correctional officers on horseback with limited access to water, minimal rest periods and no toilet facilities,” the ACLU report said.
“And that’s why this bill was important,” added Sterling, 56. “Of course I voted in favor of the bill because it is long past time that we ruled out any possibility of what is going on in Angola. That should have been a slam dunk. But now we’re the only state that has that on the books… And that’s embarrassing.”
Jordan said he wanted his bill to fail so he could reintroduce it in easy-to-understand language at the next legislative session in April 2023. He feared that a legislature might use the confusing language as an opportunity to legalize slavery in Louisiana and perpetuate forced labor.
“I didn’t even want to risk having ambiguous language used and taken to court to try to do the opposite of what we intended,” Jordan said. “Look at it this way: if the change failed on November 9th, we would be no worse off than we were on November 8th. But there’s a chance we could have done worse had it passed. … So we need to go back to the drawing board and make sure the language is clear so everyone knows exactly what the intent is.”
However, some voters remain baffled and disheartened that despite the language, a measure that began to end slavery and forced labor did not pass.
“It’s embarrassing. It’s awful,” said Robert Diggs, an Atlanta attorney of Lafayette, Louisiana. “I don’t see how there can be any excuse for confusing the language on a bill, especially one as important as This needs to be corrected as soon as possible as slavery in any form of forced labor should not be legal anywhere in this country and much less than in the world.”
Curt Simmons, an international language teacher, said he paused when he reached the part of the ballot asking about the controversial change. Simmons had recently returned to Shreveport from Prague and was unaware of the problems.
“My first thought was, ‘Am I reading that right?’ I mean, are we talking about slavery in 2022?” Simmons said. “I looked around, like, ‘Anyone else see that?’ To see that on the ballot was shocking.”
To make matters worse, he wasn’t sure how to choose. Finally, he said he voted “yes.” I was afraid that saying “no” would keep it the way it is, and I’m not for it at all. It’s really sad and makes me angry that we’re still dealing with this. How can that be?”
Slavery in America was abolished in 1865 with the 13th Amendment. But there is an exception for slavery as a “punishment for crimes”. This exception has languished in state constitutions for more than 100 years.
Curtis Ray Davis II, executive director of the abolitionist group Decarcerate Louisiana, spent nearly 26 years in Angola prison for a murder he allegedly did not commit. During his tenure he wrote the book Slave State: Evidence of Apartheid in America. He has been a social justice leader since his release in 2016.
Davis told the Louisiana Illuminator that not passing the amendment was a missed “opportunity to change the world for black advancement.” He added that the confusing language was a “form of voter suppression.”
“They got the topic mixed up so people didn’t know what they were voting on,” Davis told the Louisiana Illuminator.
Judy Reese Morse, executive director of the National Urban League’s Louisiana branch, said she hopes Louisana’s failure to pass the amendment does not reflect people’s feelings about forced prison labor or slavery.
“It is absolutely critical and important that this law be brought back to voters as soon as possible in clear language so that everyone knows what they are voting for or against,” she said. “I have to believe that every person of color in Louisiana would vote to have this removed from the Louisiana Constitution. And I hope that others, allies who understand where we are in this country, would absolutely vote to have that removed from the state’s constitution as well. But we won’t know that until we see it again.”