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.”
However, some voters remain perplexed and disheartened that, even with the language, a measure that began with ending slavery and indentured servitude did not pass.
“It’s embarrassing. It’s terrible,” said Robert Diggs, an attorney in Atlanta from Lafayette, Louisiana. “I don’t see how there can be an excuse for confusing language on a bill, especially one as important as this. This needs to be corrected as soon as possible because slavery in any form of indentured servitude should not be legal anywhere in this country and much less than the world.”
Curt Simmons, an international foreign language teacher, said he paused when he reached the part of the ballot that asked about the controversial amendment. Simmons had recently returned to Shreveport from Prague and was unaware of the issues.
“My first thought was: ‘Am I reading this right?’ I mean, we’re talking about slavery in 2022?” Simmons said. “I looked around, like ‘Does anyone else see this?’ To see that on the ballot was shocking.”
What made matters even worse was that he was unsure of how to vote. Finally, he said, he voted “yes. I was fearful that a ‘no’ vote would support keeping it as it is, and I’m not down for that at all. It’s really sad and makes me angry that we’re still dealing with this. How can this be?”
Slavery in America was abolished in 1865 with the 13th Amendment. But there is an exception for slavery as “punishment for crime.” That exception has been languishing on state constitutions for more than 100 years.
Curtis Ray Davis II, executive director for the abolitionist group Decarcerate Louisiana, spent nearly 26 years in the Angola prison for a murder he said he did not commit. During his stint, 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 lost “opportunity to change the world for Black progress.” He added that the confusing language was a “form of voter suppression.”
“They confused the issue so people didn’t know what they were voting on,” Davis told the Louisiana Illuminator.
Judy Reese Morse, executive director of the Louisiana branch of the National Urban League, said she hopes Louisana’s failure to pass the amendment isn’t a reflection of people’s feelings about forced prison labor or slavery.
“It absolutely is critical and essential that this legislation be put before voters again, as soon as possible, with language that is clear, so that everybody is clear about what they’re voting for or against,” she said. “I have to believe that every person of color in Louisiana would vote to have that removed from Louisiana’s Constitution. And I’m hoping that others as well, allies, who understand where we are in place and time in this country, would absolutely vote to have that stripped from the state’s constitution as well. But we won’t know that until we see it again.”