United States Constitution

The Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, adopted in 1865 at the conclusion of the Civil War, abolished slavery across the United States with one notable exception. According to 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” (emphasis added). In other words, slavery and involuntary servitude remain constitutionally acceptable forms of punishment for individuals who are convicted of crimes. This loophole has a disturbing history of being used to target Black Americans in the aftermath of the Civil War, with local authorities imprisoning thousands of formerly enslaved people on faulty charges and exploiting their labor. In upholding the legality of forced prison labor, the Virginia Supreme Court even went so far as to describe a prisoner who challenged the practice as a “slave of the State.” Ruffin v. Commonwealth (1871).