A version of the following story originally aired as a BreakPoint commentary on August 19.
A few months ago, at a conference on juvenile justice reform at Fordham University, Prison Fellowship President and CEO Jim Liske had made remarks that the key to criminal justice reform is, as Chuck Colson so often proclaimed, seeing offenders as made in the image of God.
Well after, a diminutive elderly African-American gentleman tapped Liske on the shoulder and said quietly, “You know, if you really believe that we should see offenders as being made in the image of God, you need to read the 13th Amendment.” And then he smiled and walked away.
As Liske recalled, “I knew the 13th Amendment to the Constitution outlawed slavery, but I had no idea what this gentleman was talking about. So I whipped out my cell phone and Googled ‘13th Amendment’. And then I understood.” And he reported what he found in a recent terrific op-ed in USA Today. “Ratified at the end of the Civil War,” he wrote, “the 13th Amendment abolished slavery, with one critical exception.”
Here’s the text of section 1 of the amendment: “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.”
In other words, as Liske explains, “according to this so-called ‘punishment clause,’ if you get pulled over with the wrong controlled substance in your trunk, there’s nothing in the 13th Amendment to ensure you can’t be considered a slave of the state.”
Now it seems preposterous to even imagine that a criminal could be sentenced to slavery. But in 1866, just one year after the Civil War ended, a black man convicted of theft in Maryland was advertised for sale in the local newspaper. And as Liske wrote in his USA Today piece, famed abolitionist Frederick Douglass decried how states exploited the exception in the 13th Amendment to “lease” convicts to “railway contractors, mining companies . . . and large plantations.” It was a nice revenue stream for state coffers.
Happily, the Supreme Court has since clarified that no one today can be sentenced to actual slavery. But next year, the United States will celebrate the 150th anniversary of the 13th Amendment, ratified after the bloodiest war in American history, and stating once and for all that we believe all people, regardless of race, are made in the image of their Creator.
Slavery is evil not just because it compels someone to work against their will, but because, as Liske wrote, it “denies the full dignity and value of the enslaved person.”
Which is why I agree with Jim Liske that the mere existence of a “punishment clause” in the 13th Amendment is an affront to human dignity, and beneath the dignity of the United States.
Now does this mean that Liske or Prison Fellowship oppose prisoner labor? No. Absolutely not.
As Liske writes, meaningful work can be part of restorative corrections policy. Prisoners who work behind bars can learn new skills that can prepare them to reintegrate into society. And with the wages they earn, they can pay restitution and support crime victim funds.
The U.S. government and many Christian organizations have been at the forefront of combating modern human trafficking and slavery worldwide. And as we approach the 150th anniversary of the abolition of slavery, why not start a national dialogue about eradicating every vestige of its shameful legacy in this country. Striking the punishment clause from the 13th Amendment would be a powerful statement about the dignity and worth of every human person.
So here’s what I’d like you to do. Please take a few moments to read Jim Liske’s op-ed. Share it with your friends, your pastor, and yes, with your elected representatives.
Like the elderly gentleman did to Jim Liske, tap them on the shoulder and just say to them, “If you believe in human dignity, you need to read the 13th Amendment.”