'Long overdue': Oregon voters can prohibit slavery, involuntary servitude in state constitution

Coffee Creek Correctional Institution in Wilsonville is Oregon's only women's prison.
Coffee Creek Correctional Institution in Wilsonville is Oregon's only women's prison.

After near unanimous support in the Legislature sent Senate Joint Resolution 10 to the ballot, Oregon will join at least four other states in voting this November on state constitutional amendments prohibiting slavery and involuntary servitude.

If voters pass Measure 112, Section 34 of the Oregon Bill of Rights would be amended to prohibit slavery or involuntary servitude without exception.

The constitution currently reads: "There shall be neither slavery, nor involuntary servitude in the State, otherwise than as a punishment for crime, whereof the party shall have been duly convicted."

It is one of the most significant and least understood civil rights issues in Oregon and the United States, Craig Berkman told Oregon lawmakers during public hearings about the measure. Berkman is a former federal inmate and CEO of the Free at Last Coalition.

“The basic governing documents of the U.S. in 21 states continue to provide the legal justification for slavery,” Berkman said during testimony. “The time has come to bring an end to America’s original sin. It is time for our generation to help bring healing and reconciliation to Oregon and our nation.”

Dehumanizing legacy

The 13th Amendment outlawed slavery in the United States more than 150 years ago. But embedded in the text is an exception that allows people convicted of crimes to be subjected to involuntary servitude.

Similar language remains in state documents.

Colorado ended its own exception to slavery in 2018. Utah and Nebraska removed the language in 2020. On Juneteenth, Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR) and Rep. Nikema Williams (D-GA) introduced a proposal to revise the 13th Amendment and remove the punishment exception at a federal level.

Tacuma Jackson was sentenced to 34 years in prison by a non-unanimous jury at the age of 26. He was granted clemency by Gov. Kate Brown after 21 years.

Prison literacy: Many Oregon prisoners aren't being taught to read

While incarcerated, he was an executive member of the Uhuru Sasa Culture Club, a Black cultural club, in the Oregon State Penitentiary. He spoke to legislators during public hearings about the importance of changing the state constitution language.

Jackson said he haswatched "important men and women in positions of power and prominence" advocate for "and sometime pass legislation meant to help people of color" while the word slavery remained present in the constitution.

"A person can't claim to be an advocate of equal rights, equal justice, no matter the party line, while this language is ever-present in our constitution," Jackson said. "My grandmother, my mother, my daughter can still see and feel the shackles. And even though I know we have a long journey ahead of us in rebuilding our trust and hope in a country we have come to love, removing this language begins a healing process that is long overdue.”

Anthony Pickens, president of the Uhuru SaSa Cultural Club, also submitted testimony. Now 38, Pickens has been incarcerated since he was 15.

"I spent more time in prison than I have a free person in society; so, my perspective is first-hand while speaking on this issue," Pickens wrote.

The country has made a lot of progress on many levels but holds on to a language in its Constitution "that is out of date and downright degrading," he added. He wrote of his stepdaughter joining the effort to pass Measure 112.

"What was gut-wrenching to me is when I had to explain this outdated language to my 11-year-old daughter, Jordynn Conner. In the America she is growing up in and knows, she could not bear hearing that the 13th Amendment and the Oregon constitution consider her stepfather a slave. Her words to me were, 'Daddy, you’re a human being, not a slave.' It was then that she was determined to fight for the language to be removed from Oregon’s constitution because she knew that no human should ever be considered a slave," Pickens wrote.

Educating Oregonians

Work to pass Measure 112 was spearheaded by Oregonians Against Slavery and Involuntary Servitude, which is made up ofWillamette University alumni and incarcerated people. It has since ballooned to include the support of more than 100 different nonprofits and businesses.

Troy Ramsey joined the campaign to pass Measure 112 after the question was sent to voters during the legislative session. Ramsey was incarcerated for several years.

"I had known for a long time that it was still in the constitution, but a lot of people do not know," Ramsey said during an interview with the Statesman Journal.

He said he spends most of his day talking to everyone he meets about the measure, asking them if they are aware slavery and servitude are still in the state constitution.

The answer is overwhelmingly "No," he said.

"That's the sad part about this," Ramsey said. "They know it's in the United States Constitution, but they couldn't believe it's in the Oregon constitution."

Ramsey is optimistic Oregon voters will overwhelmingly support the amendment if they learn about the measure.

Campaign director for Measure 112 Angela Martin echoed Ramsey.

"This is something most folks weren't paying attention to but the moment that they're made aware they come around and say wholeheartedly, 'Yes, it's time that we update this document,'" Martin said.

No direct opposition to Measure 112 has emerged, although the Oregon Department of Corrections did submit written testimony to the Oregon Legislature expressing concerns about legal uncertainty that could be caused by the measure.

Specifically, they were concerned about conflict with removing the prison labor exception while keeping language in the constitution that requires work and training for inmates.

Section 1, Article 41 of the Oregon constitution requires the Department of Corrections to engage all inmates in work or on-the-job training programs.

State law does currently authorize compensation for inmates who work, although they are not typically paid anywhere close to the required minimum wage for someone who isn't incarcerated. According to a 2022 report from the American Civil Liberties Union, Oregon inmates are often compensated not with wages but with points they can then convert into a monthly monetary reward.

"The courts through litigation could determine that (adults in custody) must be treated similarly to state employees with respect to minimum wage and hour laws, and other benefits," wrote Rob Persson, assistant director for operations.

2022 Oregon November general election: What's on your ballot

Courts in Colorado are currently navigating that same question. At least two lawsuits have been filed alleging that forced labor in the state violates the 2018 anti-slavery law. One lawsuit was dismissed in August while a class action lawsuit was filed in February.

A resolution introduced during the 2022 legislative session to let Oregon voters also decide on repealing the provision requiring inmates in corrections institutions to engage in full-time work or on-the-job training failed to pass the Legislature.

Measure 112 would add a line to the state constitution clarifying that courts, probation and parole agencies may continue to require convicted individuals to engage in alternatives to incarceration such as community service, education, counseling and treatment programs.

Ramsey said Measure 112 is only about changing the language, not about affecting the Oregon Department of Corrections.

"The only thing that it does is take the language out of the constitution. And it makes us stand with Colorado, Utah, Nebraska and hopefully Alabama, Tennessee and Vermont along the way," Ramsey said.

Dianne Lugo covers equity and social justice issues for the Statesman Journal. Reach her at dlugo@gannett.com or on Twitter @DianneLugo

This article originally appeared on Salem Statesman Journal: Oregon voters to decide on removing slavery from constitution