By Senator Lena C. Taylor
You might be surprised to learn that the term “slavery” remains a fixture in the Wisconsin constitution. In ARTICLE I., DECLARATION OF RIGHTS, Section after a provision on equality and inherent rights, the 2nd issue that the state constitution addresses is slavery. At first glance, it’s summed up in just two words: Slavery prohibited. However further reading is required.
In thumbing through the document, Article 1, Section 2, states “There shall be neither slavery, nor involuntary servitude in this state, otherwise than for the punishment of crime, whereof the party shall have been duly convicted”. Right there, in black, white and parchment, rests a provision that allows an exemption to the slavery prohibited rule.
The “Exception Clause,” also known as the Punishment Clause, made it possible for slavery to be used as a method of punishment, allowing the government to legally subject incarcerated people, across the United States, into forced labor.
Ratified in 1865, the 13th Amendment abolished slavery in America, “except as punishment for a crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted,” and numerous states adopted the same language. Former slaveholding states used the exception as a loophole to reclaim people who had been previously enslaved and whom had sought safe harbor in free states, like Wisconsin.
Pro-slavery sympathizers, living on the borders of free and slave states, used the language as an opportunity to keep a form of de facto slavery, by creating and enforcing laws that disproportionately penalized Black Americans. Enslavers could ensure that they continued to get free labor off the backs of, often wrongfully, convicted people.
While the Wisconsin Department of Corrections does not use slave labor, they are legally permitted to do so under current law. This has to change, but modifications to the state constitution does not come easy. To remove the slavery provision, amendments to the constitution must be adopted by two successive legislatures and then ratified by the electorate in a statewide election.
As a part of a larger Conditions of Confinement Package of bills, along with fellow coauthors, I re-introduced a resolution to amend our constitution. The amendment would strike the last 15 words of Article I, Section 2, and finally put an end to the ugly legacy of slavery, Wisconsin would join states like Tennessee, Alabama, Oregon and Vermont, who have all decided to make changes to their constitutions, in the past year.
The Wisconsin constitution has been amended 148 times, since the state was founded in 1848. It was last amended in April 2023. After 176 years, I hope we can all agree that it’s time to remove any reference to slavery. Change starts with the passing of LRB 5017/1, re: slavery or involuntary servitude in punishment of a crime (first consideration).