Written by Kwasi Konadu, Colgate University and Clifford C. Campbell, Dartmouth College


The 13th Amendment is having a moment of reckoning. Considered one of the crowning achievements of American democracy, the Civil War-era constitutional amendment set “free” an estimated 4 million enslaved people and seemed to demonstrate American claims to equality and freedom. But the amendment did not apply to those convicted of a crime.

And one group of people are disproportionately, though not solely, criminalized – descendants of formerly enslaved people.

“Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude,” the amendment reads, “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.”

In other words, slavery still exists in America, but the only people whose labor can be enslaved are those convicted of a crime.

To some lawmakers and human rights advocates, that exception is a blight on democracy and the very idea of freedom – even for those convicted of a crime. As scholars of slavery and the histories of African America, our research shows the 13th Amendment’s exception clause reinvented slave labor and involuntary servitude behind prison walls.