Ending Slavery? Or Hiding It Behind Bars?

By Mark Honey

Slavery would be formally ended in Nebraska if a newly introduced amendment to the state constitution is passed.

State Senator Justin Wayne of northeast Omaha introduced the bill. The state’s constitution still today reads, “There shall be neither slavery nor involuntary servitude in this state, otherwise than for punishment of crime…”

“I hope one hundred percent of my colleagues support this amendment,” said Wayne in a press release. “It’s time to remove this hateful remnant of slavery from our state Constitution.”

Other state senators expressed shock that the language still existed in the document.

Senator Wayne is right in proposing this bill, and I hope it passes; but I fear he’s missing part of the picture. Prisoners’ rights advocates argue that the 13th Amendment of the US Constitution – which has strikingly similar language to the Nebraskan one — allows for

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Senator Justin Wayne

legal slavery while jailed.

The portrait painted is a dark one: Racist policing, a failing drug war which targets marginalized groups, an unequal court system, and the school-to-prison pipeline all feed into inmates’ realities, where a package of ramen costs $1.50 and a short phone call can cost up to $25. One former prisoner I talked to told me that in his first two months in jail, he lost more than 20 pounds because the meals were so tiny and poor. He called it malnutrition.

The exorbitant prices paired with inadequate living conditions essentially force prisoners to work. Then, once working, they earn as little as 13 cents an hour. That money often goes right back to the prison commissary in order to buy food and clothing.

What do prisoners do for work anyway? In California, they fight wildfires for two dollars a day. In Washington, they make holiday decorations for Starbucks. In Arkansas, they clean the governor’s mansion. In Florida, they process meat. In Oregon, they stitch uniforms for McDonald’s.

All of this labor is making somebody money – it just isn’t the prisoners.

Does this not sound like the vicious old practice of the company store? One could work their whole life and always end up trapped. Did Tennessee Ernie Ford not tell this story in “Sixteen Tons” when he describes life in the coal mines?

“You load sixteen tons and what do you get? / Another day older and deeper in debt. / Saint Peter don’t you call me, cause I can’t go / I owe my soul to the company store.”

Inmates in the Tecumseh State Prison have rioted multiple times over their conditions, even attempting to present a list of grievances before the infamous 2015 Mother’s Day Riot. The jailed men were against a new policy that took away sports leagues and the prized laundry room job from most. They were also angry about a change in yard policy that meant people could only spend a few hours a week out of their cell, when before it was a few hours a day.

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Tecumseh inmate with list of prisoner’s grievances

The ACLU has also filed lawsuits against Nebraska for what they call an “overcrowding crisis.” In 2017, Nebraska’s prisons were at 159 percent capacity, according to the lawsuit.

I hope Senator Wayne succeeds with his amendment. I also hope he recognizes the need for humane treatment of prisoners. Our decrepit and merciless jails offer no respite from enslavement – they only hide it.

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