State Rep. Edmond Jordan sponsored a bill that asked Louisiana voters to officially abolish slavery in the Louisiana Constitution last year.
Then he asked voters not to do it.
It wasn’t that Jordan, D-Baton Rouge, doesn’t want to officially abolish slavery in Louisiana. He just wants to get it right.
Last year, as voters prepared to vote on his proposed constitutional amendment, Jordan said the ballot language became flawed during the legislative process. He asked for another chance to work on it, and voters agreed by voting the amendment down.
He brought the idea back this legislative session in House Bill 211, but, so far, things haven't worked out as he had hoped. "I didn't want any amendments," he told me, noting how things went awry last year.
Why are we even discussing slavery when the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution already abolishes it?
Jordan says it's because the Louisiana Constitution likewise abolishes it, but with a caveat. It states, “Slavery and involuntary servitude are prohibited, except in the latter case as punishment for crime.”
Jordan wants to get rid of the italicized language, not because he's trying to abolish prison labor, but because he wants to focus people's attention on abolishing slavery and involuntary servitude.
Yes, it's a symbolic gesture. But, to Black citizens, symbolism and substance go hand in hand.
The House Civil Law Committee amended Jordan’s bill Tuesday after some heated debate about slavery, involuntary servitude and prison labor. The debate became a Black-White thing. Some Black legislators argued in favor of the bill while some White legislators argued against it — unless it was amended to make it clear that Jordan's proposal wouldn't get rid of prison labor.
Rep. Alan Seabaugh, R-Shreveport, accused Jordan of trying to abolish prison labor with last year's ballot initiative. He called Jordan "disingenuous."
Jordan took offense.
So did State Rep. Alonzo Knox, D-New Orleans.
Knox, a businessman and Marine veteran, called the prison labor amendment a “red herring” intended to keep slavery on the books. “I’m confused. I’m perplexed. I’m concerned. I’m disgusted. And I’m a little angry about it,” Knox said.
Knox said legislators fighting the abolition of slavery and involuntary servitude are “good and decent people” who nevertheless “want to retain something that’s so ugly and so disgusting about this state as it relates to slavery and conflate it with something to justify their own sense of reasoning.”
Prison labor opponents say the closest thing Louisiana has to publicly supported slavery is forced labor in state prisons. Jordan draws a clear distinction.
“Hard labor is not a thing. Hard labor is a place," Jordan said. "When you’re sentenced to hard labor that means you’re sentenced to a state correctional facility like Angola or Hunt or St. Gabriel’s prison for women or something like that.”
Jordan says he does have concerns about the prison labor system, but said "this bill does not address prison labor.”
If Seabaugh and others fear that Jordan's proposed constitutional amendment would abolish prison labor, they should look at how other states have resolved that question.
Abolishing slavery and involuntary servitude at the same time has been trending recently. Colorado, Nebraska and Utah approved constitutional amendments like Jordan's proposal. In November, when the previous Louisiana constitutional amendment failed as Louisiana voters said no, Alabama, Oregon, Tennessee and Vermont voters said yes.
Colorado voters said yes in 2018 — without any clarifying language, same as Jordan proposes for Louisiana. In August, the Colorado Court of Appeals rejected inmate Mark Lamar’s argument that he cannot be required to work under the state’s newly adopted amendment. The court said the constitutional amendment was not intended to end the state's prison work program.
Other states' courts have ruled likewise.
Jordan’s bill is likely to come up for consideration by the entire House in a few days. If it passes with the committee's changes, Louisiana voters will vote yes or no on October 12 on the following:
"Do you support an amendment to prohibit involuntary servitude while not prohibiting an inmate from being required to work when the inmate has been duly convicted of a crime? (Amends Article 1, Section 3)"
I understand Jordan’s concern about that amendment language. I think it would be clearer to ask voters to focus on slavery and involuntary servitude — and then deal with prison labor separately. Our courts, like those in other states, will readily discern the intent of Jordan's proposed constitutional amendment.
Prison labor is a complicated issue worth discussing, but let's first set things right, once and for all, on slavery.