As other states ban unpaid 'slave' prison labor, lawmakers drop plans to tackle issue in Florida
It's in your civics classes. The 13th Amendment of the US Constitution, ratified in 1865, abolished slavery and involuntary servitude. But there was one glaring exception clause: if convicted by state courts, incarcerated Americans can be slaves of the state.
Four states banned slavery during last year's general elections — 150 years after enslaved Black Americans were freed. Voters in Alabama, Tennessee, Vermont and Oregon amended their state constitutions so unpaid prison labor, deemed exploitative by critics, would no longer be allowed.
But as Florida's legislative session gets underway, WLRN can reveal that a similar push by Black Democratic lawmakers has been halted, with lawmakers citing a climate of political fear over race-related issues in the state as well as the influence of the private prison industry.
In early 2022, State Senator Bobby Powell of West Palm Beach and Representative Dianne Hart of Tampa filed companion bills [SJR 392 and HJR 39] to create language that explicitly abolishes “slavery or involuntary servitude” from Florida’s constitution, “including as a penalty or punishment for crime.”
The proposals failed to garner broad support among elected officials and didn't get anywhere. But since four other states passed similar proposals, Powell and Hart felt encouraged to try again.
Late last year, Powell and Hart told WLRN they would re-submit a version that mimicked the constitutional language of bills passed by Republican-led states, such as Tennessee and Alabama. “Alabama is a red state and if they can do it, surely we can do it here in Florida,” Hart said.
She said forced labor in Florida prisons is exploitative and too often doesn’t provide transferable skills that could help incarcerated workers who are returning back to predominantly Black communities.
“If people truly understood how many universities have used our prison labor, how many road crews and companies have used our prison labor,” Hart said. “I think it's very, very unfair to the people who are serving their time to have to work for free.”
As recently as three years ago, the University of Florida was using forced, unpaid prison labor. After public pressure from students, the university ended free prison labor around their agricultural research sites across the state. The decision was part of the university’s “racial equity goals,” according to the Gainesville Sun.
Anna Eskamani, Democratic state representative from Central Florida
Senator Bobby Powell told WLRN last December he expected to file the legislation again for the March 2023 session, saying he believes “this is something we got in the pipeline and there's a good probability that I’ll file this legislation again this year.”
Climate of fear over race-related issues
But now, just as this year's session is starting, Powell and Hart have decided not to move forward with the legislation.
A spokesperson for Hart told WLRN: “Representative Hart has decided to forgo filing that specific bill. Due to recent attacks on Black history by Governor DeSantis, she felt it would not be an effective use of her bill slot. She has instead chosen to use that slot to file legislation with a greater chance of creating positive change throughout her community and the state.”
Representative Hart is referring to Governor Ron DeSantis’ controversial decision to reject an early version of an Advanced Placement course in African American Studies.
The concern among Black leaders centers around the perceived inability to move certain legislation through a Republican-led legislature.
Dwight Bullard, a Black progressive political activist and former State senator, said DeSantis' bullhorn surrounding cultural war and race issues has made it difficult for legislators, especially Black leaders, to move an anti-slavery bill through the legislature. He said DeSantis, through policy decisions, created a political climate of fear over discussing historical race-related issues.
“The problem with this administration is that it has done so many harmful things in just five years that either directly or indirectly impact Black people and Black communities that they have no leg to stand on,” Bullard, who is also a former public school history teacher.
Bullard specifically referenced DeSantis' opposition to the AP African American History course and his controversial redistricting plan that overruled lawmakers to break up heavily Black congressional districts and Black voting power in North Florida last summer. Democratic lawmakers, at the time, temporarily halted legislative proceedings with a sit-in protest, shouting “Stop the Black attack” and “We shall overcome.”
WLRN asked DeSantis' office what the governor's position is on the legislation to outlaw prison labor. Deputy Press Secretary Jeremy Redfern did not answer the question directly. Instead, he sent WLRN a link to Florida's oath of office as well as a link to the text of the 13th amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
Redfern also touted the state investments into Florida’s Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) and referred WLRN to DeSantis' remarks on the College Board’s African American Studies course during a press conference in January.
Gov. DeSantis said: “In the state of Florida, our education standards not only don't prevent but they require teaching Black history — all the important things. That's part of our core curriculum. This was a separate course on top of that for Advanced Placement credit. And the issue is we have guidelines and standards in Florida: we want education, not indoctrination.”
Private prison corporations
According to Bullard, money from private prison corporations may also influence decisions in the legislature. He pointed to former state Senate President, Republican Joe Negron, who left to become general counsel at the Boca Raton-based GEO Group.
GEO Group is a large publicly traded private prison contractor that runs several private prisons in Florida. It lobbies state lawmakers and makes contributions to their campaigns.
Bullard, who also served two terms in the House, said “a number of Representatives and Senators that have taken contributions from private prison providers to keep these kinds of things intact."
Despite producing billions of dollars for the state, federal government and private entities, many incarcerated workers in Florida are forced to do unpaid work with very little protections against labor exploitation and abuse.
A June 2022 study published by the American Civil Liberties Union and the University of Chicago showed that of the 800,000 workers incarcerated in prisons across the US, nearly 80% report facing punishment for not doing work, such as loss of family visitation or solitary confinement.
Anna Eskamani, who co-introduced the bill, said her Republican colleagues are just not interested.
“Florida is very much a state where slavery has been persistent, but because it's in the presence of the incarcerated population, it hides in the dark,” Eskamani, a Democratic state representative from Central Florida, said. “And I do think that there's a stigma associated with that where a lot of lawmakers don't want to touch it.”
The joint resolution was killed in various committees, including the Criminal Justice & Public Safety Subcommittee.
A growing national movement
Scrubbing slavery-related language in state constitutions is part of a growing national movement - and Florida is far from being the only place where it met with resistance.
Max Parthas is the National Campaign Coordinator for the Abolish Slavery National Network, one of many human rights organizations leading the national movement to end slavery-related language on the state and federal level.
Parthas says dozens of states that he has worked with faced the same hurdles in their committee.
“We failed more times than we won. So when you heard about the four states that made it, we started with 15 and the same thing the year before that,” Parthas told WLRN. “So we put out this wide net and only a few make it through. And the reason that they don't make it through is often because they get killed in committee, just like it got killed in committee in Florida.”
He said the movement is still gaining steam. In Nevada, for example, voters will decide whether to ban slavery and involuntary servitude as a punishment for crime from their constitution on the 2024 ballot. Parthas said, for other states, making the public aware of "old, antiquated" laws in the books and getting an anti-slavery bill through committees is the biggest challenge.
"In Ohio, we’ve had three attempts now to try to get it done with the same effect happening each time where it gets killed in committee where it just won’t hear anything,” Parthas said. "We see the same thing happening in other states. So we expect that to continue to go on ... But we know at the end of it all we’re going to get a few through.”
The final goal for the network is to get 39 states on board so they can act as representatives in order to amend the US 13th amendment.
In Florida, if state legislators passed a resolution banning slavery and involuntary servitude, it would be placed on the ballot so voters could decide. But as of now, the resolution hasn't even been introduced. The legislative session started this week – and it's scheduled through early May.
Leaders of the Florida State Senate and House did not respond to WLRN's requests for comment.
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