Quaker Universalist Conversations

“End Slavery for All”

Excerpt from Friends Journal

In “End Slavery for All,” the Viewpoint section for the September 2016 issue of Friends Journal, John Andrew Gallery of Philadelphia, PA, explains why we should amend the 13th Amendment of the United States Constitution. The following are excerpts from his essay.

Recently, I was asked if I knew that slavery was still legal in the United States. Of course I said no, that’s not possible. I then read the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution, and when I did I was shocked. Yes, it does permit slavery in the United States. Don’t believe me? Here it is:

13th Amendement of the U.S. Constitution

Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.

What this says is that anyone convicted of a crime—even something minor resulting in as little as one year in prison—can be treated as a slave. And it does not say that this treatment is limited to the time in prison. It is an open-ended statement that could be interpreted to mean that anyone convicted of a crime can be punished by being treated as a slave for their entire life, forever.

I am sure you are saying, well, that might be what it says, but no one is actually being treated as a slave. Think again. Just compare how inmates are treated today with how African Americans were treated before the Civil War.

  • Inmates are forced to work at producing goods for which their “masters” (the prison system) earn money, while being provided with minimal food and shelter and nominal payment for their time.
  • Inmates are subject to the total control of an “overseer” (in this case a guard in the prison system) and are required to do whatever that person says, with even minor violations subject to cruel and unusual punishment (as defined by the United Nations). Placement in solitary confinement, a standard disciplinary practice, does as much mental and physical damage as physical beatings did.
  • Inmates can be sold from one “master” to another (in this case moved from one prison to another) without consent or without consideration of the disruption to family connections.
  • Inmates are not allowed to maintain normal family relationships.
  • By federal law, inmates have almost no ability to seek legal protection for their treatment while in prison.
  • In some states and for some crimes inmates are denied voting rights.

In addition, the conditions of “slavery” persists beyond the period of confinement: former inmates convicted of certain crimes are subject to long periods of supervision with even minor violations resulting in a return to prison; they are prevented from obtaining federally subsidized housing and other benefits available to others, not allowed to vote in some instances and handicapped in their ability to find employment.

The status as slaves allows abuse in the prison system to exist—including the abuse of using inmates for labor without being paid fairly, which was in fact the intent immediately after the Civil War when inmates were hired out to provide labor formerly provided by slaves. And it allows these conditions in spite of the Fourteenth Amendment requirement of “equal protection” of all citizens.

It’s time, and in fact long overdue, that this portion of the Thirteenth Amendment be eliminated…. Such a change would not only provide a strong basis for reforming the criminal justice system, it would also have a direct impact on racism since a large percentage of inmates and former inmates are African American men and women….


If slavery or involuntary servitude is the worst thing that can happen to a United States citizen, then I think it is a good deterrant. If you are going to add decency to the act of being a criminal by offering to let them pay for room and board in prison, the irony isn’t lost on me.
I understand, Virginia. However, I worked in a state prison system for 12 years, during the same time that I was on the Criminal Justice Task Force of American Friends Service Committee (see AFSC - Addressing Prisons). As the Friends Journal essay argues, our so-called “criminal justice” system implicitly and explicitly targets Blacks, especially Black men, and it then exploits them as involuntary laborers for the sake of state and corporate profit. This is not “them paying for room and board.” This is them being channeled into the prison system to work without fair pay or civil rights. Blessings,Mike
I volunteer in jails and prisons currently. I think that work for incarcerated men and women varies considerably among states, and even within the prison systems. From my (albeit limited) experience, for some it is a source of skills, habit training and/or even pride. For others it is menial labor with demeaning or oppressive supervisors/overseers. In my view, work in jails and prisons should be voluntary and clearly benefit the worker. There is much in the current systems that needs to be addressed. Solitary confinement as practiced in the U.S. regularly violates United Nations standards and can be considered torture. American Friends Service Committee has more information at http://www.afsc.org/resource/solitary-confinement-facts. Peace, Gail
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