It is long past time to fully abolish slavery in the state of Tennessee and nationwide, and State Sen. Akbari’s Joint Resolution 80 aims to do just that.
I suppose I should begin by explaining the title of this piece, and assuring you that I’ve not chosen such an eye-popping term as “slavery” for its shock value.
I’ve written another piece to describe a bit of the history and mechanics of legal slavery in the U.S., not to mention the mountain of academic work on the subject, but my best attempt at summing up the issue quickly is this: The 13th amendment abolished chattel slavery in the U.S., but did not outlaw slavery as “punishment for a crime.” Because of this, prisons across the country and the state of Tennessee, force inmates to work for the prison or for private companies at a wage of cents on the hour and sometimes no wage at all. They compel them to work, sometimes through brute force, but more often by imposing debts upon them and charging increasing rates for things like calls home and medical care, so that prisoners must work for weeks to afford a simple conversation with their family.
Discussion on the topic is also, of course, incomplete without mentioning the fact that the vast majority of the weight of the U.S. penal system falls upon the shoulders of black and brown communities, as well as poor white communities.
We should be clear that prisoners ought to be able to work if they would like. They are, however, human beings, and therefore, they deserve a fair wage like every other citizen, and they ought not be saddled with the cost of a ballooning system of mass incarceration that is already destroying their communities and lives.
Tennessee has been, for the past few years, a key battleground in the movement for inmate rights. The continuing saga of the battle against CoreCivic added a new chapter in July as public pressure lead to the end of Davidson County’s contract with the private prison company. The move was announced with an angry screed of a letter from CoreCivic’s CEO.
The reality, however, is that the crisis of enslavement of inmates is not limited to, or even driven by, private prisons. While the idea of a private corporation profiting on the detainment and exploitation of human beings is troubling in its own right, the majority of the legal slavery in the country is driven by state and federal prisons offloading the cost of the prison complex on to its prisoners. The real answer is remarkably simple: abolish slavery for real this time.
State Sen. Raumesh Akbari’s Joint Resolution (SJR0080) to do this landed on the desks of the Senate Judiciary committee on March 2. Its language and goal is simple: “An amendment to Article I, Section 33 of the Constitution of Tennessee removing the criminal punishment exception from the slavery and involuntary servitude prohibition.” In laymen’s terms, abolish slavery. It really is that simple.
The committee features Murfreesboro Senator, Dawn White, as First Vice Chair.
No politician in the United States in the year 2021 should reasonably be able to oppose the abolition of slavery, and yet it has still not been accomplished. This is driven, as are many things, by a mixture of money and apathy. The chair of the Judiciary Committee, the very group which will soon hear arguments for this bill, took $1,000 dollars in campaign contributions from CoreCivc alone just in 2020. Additionally, the bill has received little coverage thus far in Tennessee media.
Nevertheless, the push for this bill, rhetorically speaking, must remain simple and direct.