Colorado Abolishes Prison Slavery in Huge Win for Prisoners Rights


Colorado voted overwhelmingly in favor of abolishing slavery and forced servitude as punishment for a crime, more than 150 years after the U.S. Constitution ratified the 13th Amendment.

Language still exists to allow forced servitude as punishment in more than a dozen state constitutions, including Nevada, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Wisconsin. Before voters went to the polls in Colorado on Tuesday, the state constitution included a passage that reads: “There shall never be in this state either slavery or involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime, whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.”

Last night, with 95% of Colorado counties reporting results, the anti-slavery measure Amendment A had the support of 65% of voters. It needed just 55% support to become law, the Denver Post reported.

Voters almost passed the measure in 2016 but the language was confusing and many people didn’t realize the amendment would abolish slavery, according to Abolish Slavery Colorado‘s co-chair Jumoke Emery, who has organized and campaigned around the issue since 2015. This time around, organizers made sure to clarify the language and raise awareness around the state alongside a coalition of grassroots activists and organizations.

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“The hope is that this win opens up the door to a larger conversation about what abolition really looks like and can accomplish,” Emery told Fortune. “It’s clear to me, but regardless how people feel about the criminal justice system, the ultimate outcome is that it shouldn’t be slavery.”

Along with Colorado’s win for prisoners rights, Florida voters on Tuesday restored voting rights to 1.4 million formerly incarcerated Americans. The two victories might signal a shift in prisoners rights moving forward, thanks in large part to national organizing around the issue.

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In August, incarcerated Americans planned a nationwide prison strike to demand an end to prison slavery, among other extensive prison reforms. The wins in Colorado and Florida “reflect demands that were made during the 2018 prison strike, and organizing to support the ability of prisoners to secure those demands,” Jared Ware, a freelance writer and member of the National Prison Strike Media Relations team told Fortune. Abolishing prison slavery was the second demand of strikers, and reinstating voting rights was associated with the 10th demand.

The victories in both states are a result of organizing, mobilizing, and voters taking action, Ware explained. He added that it reflects a change in attitude toward incarcerated Americans, which is “directly related to people seeing prisoners organize around these issues themselves, through actions like prison strikes.”

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While the win is significant, continued organizing around prisoners rights will continue. Ware pointed to the ways this win in Colorado may not afford prisoners the same labor protections as workers have outside of prison, but it “opens a window for continued organizing efforts.”

But awareness around these issues is on the rise. “The prison strike over the summer, in addition to raising awareness, just goes to show that there are people all over the nation becoming aware that institutionalization of slavery still exists and they are interested in removing it,” said Emery.

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