Black voters in Louisiana ‘embarrassed’ by state’s failure to pass anti-slavery amendment

A cell block is seen alongside an inner levee protecting from the Mississippi River at Angola State Prison in West Feliciana Parish, La., Monday, May 9, 2011. A convoy of buses and vans transferred inmates with medical problems from Angola, which is bordered on three sides by the Mississippi River, and temporary quarters were being built on higher ground as part of an effort to prepare for possible flooding. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

By Curtis Bunn

Black voters in Louisiana are confused. Many are embarrassed. Some are angry. All seem to be concerned about how their state is being perceived after a constitutional amendment to eliminate slavery and forced indentured servitude failed to pass in the November election.

That may be, in part, because the lawmaker who authored the bill to allow the vote switched direction and worked to kill it.

Four other states — Alabama, Oregon, Tennessee and Vermont — passed similar legislation, effectively ending “slave labor” in prisons. Louisiana, however, did not vote for the constitutional amendment, which had been introduced by Rep. Edmond Jordan, a Black politician known for fighting for Black people’s causes, like limiting police officers’ immunity in civil lawsuits.

In an unusual twist, Jordan initiated a campaign last summer for an amendment he authored to fail. His original bill read, “Slavery and involuntary servitude are prohibited.” With that language, it was clear the bill would have wiped out the 138-year-old exception in Louisiana’s Constitution that allowed involuntary servitude as punishment for a crime.

But Jordan agreed to an addendum to the bill, which said that the part of the constitution that “prohibited slavery and involuntary servitude” did not “apply to the otherwise lawful administration of criminal justice.” That section, Jordan said, created confusion for him and voters and made some question whether the second part of the bill was “canceling out the first part.”

“Are they trying to trick us into voting for slavery?” asked John Miles, a 41-year-old Black truck driver in Monroe. “Why would they make it so confusing?” He said he voted no because of the lack of clarity.

Ultimately, the amendment failed, with 61% voting no.

Jordan was fine with the amendment not passing, even though many Black voters disagreed. The measure received more “no” votes than “yes” in all 64 parishes in the state. Some of those voters, like Todd L. Sterling of Baton Rouge, say the measure passing would have represented progress rather than leaving slavery and indentured servitude in place. Its failure signifies remnants of a time many would like to forget.

“It was a tricky bill to read if you had not done a little homework,” said Sterling, owner of Alpha Media and Public Relations, an advertising agency in the state capital. “It really pertains to the penal system in Louisiana, renting people out, which is modern-day slavery. If you weren’t up on the subject, and you weren’t familiar with how the penal system treats the incarcerated like slaves, you wouldn’t really think that it was a big issue.”

But it is in Louisiana, where inmates engage in “slave labor” at its state penitentiary nicknamed Angola after the former plantation on which the prison was built. According to a report by the American Civil Liberties Union and University of Chicago Law School Global Human Rights Clinic, prisoners there earn between 2 cents and 20 cents an hour, with many working in the fields on crops like sugarcane, corn, soybeans and, yes, cotton.

And Black inmates make up 74% of the Angola prison population.

“Field laborers work with limited access to water, minimal rest and no restroom facilities, under the supervision of armed correctional officers on horseback,” the ACLU report said.

“And that’s why this bill was important,” Sterling, 56, added. “Of course, I voted for the bill because it’s long past the time we eliminate any possibility of what’s going on at Angola. That should have been a slam dunk. But now we’re the only state that has something like on the books… And that’s embarrassing.”

Jordan said he wanted his bill to fail so he could reintroduce it at the next legislative session, in April 2023, with easy-to-understand language. He feared there was potential for a lawmaker to use the confusing language as an opportunity to legalize slavery in Louisiana and keep indentured servitude.

“I wasn’t even going to take the chance of some ambiguous language being used and brought to court to try to do the opposite of what we intended,” Jordan said. “Look at it this way: If the amendment failed, on Nov. 9, we’d be no worse off than when we were on Nov. 8. But there’s a potential that we could have been worse if it had passed. … So, we need to go back to the drawing board and make sure that the language is clear so everybody knows exactly what the intent is.”