Welcome to Louisiana Lefty, a podcast about politics and community in Louisiana, where we make the case that the health of the state requires a strong progressive movement fueled by the critical work of organizing on the ground. Our goal is to democratize information, demystify party politics, and empower you to join the mission, because victory for Louisiana requires you.
I'm your host Lynda Woolard. With our previous episode, we completed our fourth season, and we'll be on winter break through January. But we'll still be producing mini pods in the meantime. This episode I'm sharing a conversation I had with Decarcerate Louisiana's Maria Harmon and Laramie Griffin. At the recommendation of our previous guest, Omari Ho-Sang, I asked them to speak with us about Constitutional Amendment 7 from our November 8th ballot that sought to remove slavery from our state constitution. That amendment failed on the ballot this year, and failed to even get out of legislative committee last year. Omari and I spoke about this on her episode, Freedom Fighter, as well as on the Lefty Lagniappe video we did for Facebook and YouTube, both of which I'll link to in the Episode Notes. But she suggested a deeper dive on the topic with Decarcerate Louisiana.
Through these conversations, I've tried to get a fuller understanding of what happened with this amendment over the past two years. And by sharing the expertise of advocates who were involved with it, my hope is that we can get a commitment from every Louisianan who'd like the embarrassment of slavery removed from our Constitution, to get involved when the opportunity inevitably arises again in 2023. As a final piece of information, before delving into this topic, I want to share the full text of the 13th Amendment of the US Constitution, because it's relevant to the conversation. Section 1: either 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. Section 2: Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.
Maria and Laramie, thank you so much for joining me on Louisiana Lefty. I've invited y'all on today, because y'all are both with Decarcerate Louisiana, and you were involved with the push to pass Constitutional Amendment 7, and I really wanted to get some information directly from y'all because there was so much conflicting information on that amendment. And I feel like voters wanted to vote the right way, but didn't know what that meant. So I really just wanted to get your story and have y'all give us feedback. And I can ask you this a little more in detail later, but I want to know what happened. I also would like to get your opinion, after y'all tell us that story, I'd like to find out, what we can do better next time. That's really where I'd like to go. So whoever would like to start, please introduce yourself and then give us some feedback on Constitutional Amendment 7.
Sure. So my name is Maria Harmon. I serve as president of the board for Decarcerate Louisiana. And I'm also one of the co-directors for Step Up Louisiana. Of course, we partnered with Decarcerate on the Yes on 7 Coalition. And essentially, Amendment 7 was developed to abolish the slavery exception clause out of our state's constitution. And this is also a strategy that is taking place in many other states across the country, because this is all an effort to nullify the 13th amendment, to place another amendment in its place that completely eliminates slavery and involuntary servitude, with no exception. And that's essentially what this whole movement is about.
We understand the implications that many incarcerated people face because of that exception clause, due to inhumane conditions to live in, inhumane circumstances in how they're treated, not really having their personhood respected, not having their labor respected either, in a very systemic and volatile and oppressive structure that we call the incarceration system here in Louisiana. And it was very imperative that we made some strides this year. But unfortunately, we were met with a lot of opposition that had a lot of resources and a lot of influence that caused a lot of confusion to take place. It's just unfortunate that the intentions that were initially set were not fully impacted in the masses across the state. But a lot of people have learned some things coming out of this situation, and I'm hopeful for the future, because we're not giving up.
My name is Laramie Griffin. I am the vice president of the board for Decarcerate Louisiana. And I'm also the founder of Evolve Louisiana. We started this journey coming together as a group and forming Decarcerate Louisiana, officially, two years ago, somewhere between summer and fall to get this abolition amendment pushed through legislation to fully abolish slavery and involuntary servitude, as punishment for crime. And the mission of Decarcerate Louisiana is to fully prohibit slavery, involuntary servitude, human trafficking throughout the state of Louisiana. That is the full mission. That is the national mission. And some people do not know that this is a push to fully to repeal the 13th Amendment. We can abolish the 13th amendment, because it is a living document.
So when we get three quarters of the states to abolish slavery and involuntary servitude in their constitutions, then we can repeal the 13th Amendment, which will then enact, we have to start another amendment which will say slavery and involuntary servitude are prohibited, period. And so working together with Decarcerate and the national organization, the Abolish Slavery National Network has been definitely mind blowing as far as their knowledge and our knowledge coming together, as far as what's in our state laws, our constitution, and our revised statutes and the differences, the few differences between the states. But most of the states have the same exact mirrored amendment which says slavery and involuntary servitude are prohibited, except that exception "as punishment for crime" has continued slavery in a legalized way, which has put people in very traumatizing positions, deadly positions, positions of, you know, mass incarceration, position of wrongful treatment, wrongful prosecution, and so on, and so forth.
So this is not this wasn't just a one for all, this was going to be, like Maria said, just bringing back people's citizenship as a actual person, of being treated humanely, and not being treated as just someone who's subhuman. That's not what we want. We want people to be treated as they were born. We, we definitely want, let's say someone has sleep apnea that's incarcerated. We want them to be able to sleep with a CPAP machine. But right now, it's considered contraband. So we need that separation. People don't need to be treated in such a way because people have families, they still have loved ones, they still have children. And so we want that for everyone.
But this has been also not treatment, but also been a monopoly for a lot of businesses, you know, across the country, in the hundreds. And they make millions and billions off of us, off those people every year without it actually coming back to the community, without coming back as far as help as far as what they were incarcerated for in the first place. So that's what this is about. We want people to understand that this is not going to just free everyone and open up the floodgates to the jails and prisons. This is about making sure everyone has citizenship, like they're supposed to, like the constitution says it's supposed to. But with this exception, it puts them in a different category, and we want to remove it and bring people back to a place like everyone else, a positive place to where they can live free, to where they can have the basic needs, the basic necessities as far as living life.
I think what was missing in some of the coverage of this amendment is that it is this movement that you're talking about where there were, like I didn't hear the news stories about this being on the ballot in what was it, five states total?
Four other states, five total. Yes.
I didn't hear that until after it failed. That was never part of the news coverage. The only news coverage I saw was about the legislator who carried the bill through the legislature then saying, "I don't want people to vote yes on it." So that, to me feels like a media didn't really give this fair coverage. Do y'all have that sense about it? Or am I off base there?
No, I would agree. Yeah, I would have to agree. And also the local media, once they're approached by certain people in power, about taking a certain position on some things, that's essentially where the attention went towards.
Right. And, like I said, she's exactly right. We contacted the local news to try to get our side of the story, because they took one side. We actually had different interviews, and they took the side a person who had a title, and that's what they had here in local news. That's what they done to us. But nationally, there were over, I believe, 40 articles within I believe, a month that came out nationally. But locally, they weren't taking the side of how big this was, and the right step as far as who is saying what and why they're saying what they're saying.
So three quarters of the states need to pass this kind of amendment in order for the US government to take it up for for a federal constitutional amendment. Is that right?
Yes, it will help to expedite the process, for sure. And the Abolish Slavery National Network, which is the national group leading on this effort, it's also a supporter of Decarcerate Louisiana. They have already identified a couple of federal legislators, Senator Bernie Sanders being one of them, to put the legislation in place through the US Congress and US Senate to make a 28th amendment.
And how far away are y'all from having three quarters of the states?
So far, I believe there's about eight total, now eight states total who have passed constitutional amendments to amend their state constitution that strips away the exception clause.
Right. And I want to add to that there are going to be another 20, a push for another 20 on the ballot next year. And so that will push us to a possible 28. So we're looking at about 38 states that we do need that will help us push to - not abolish the 13th Amendment - it will repeal, which will create like Maria said, it would create the 28th Amendment, which will say slavery and involuntary servitude are prohibited, period.
Okay. And Omari, when I spoke to her had mentioned that y'all took this to our legislature in 2021 also, and it didn't get out of committee. What was the difference this year with getting it out of committee?
I would say, I believe there was more collaboration amongst legislators as far as working together to reach a compromise in the language of the bill. In the first year, there was some very strong opposition right out the gate. Representative Alan Seabaugh even said that was the most dangerous piece of legislation that came before them in 2021. And then when we came back again, with the same bill, Representative Richard Nelson offered up the amendment that Utah actually utilized to repeal their slavery exemption clause in their state constitution. And the language literally mirrored each other. So there wasn't too much of a difference between the language.
Unfortunately, I feel like what was the downside to us being successful with Amendment 7 was the actual ballot question, because the ballot question did not actually reflect the actual language of the bill itself, Act 246. The question asked if you are in favor of involuntary servitude and slavery being prohibited, except for in the otherwise lawful administration of criminal justice, and that was completely different language. And when you put except in there, it actually changes up the intent and the concept of the law, when really in the first paragraph in Article 1, Section 3, it says involuntary servitude and slavery are prohibited, except for the latter case of crime has been scratched out, and all you see is period at the end, there's no except. And then it goes into the sub paragraph: does not apply to the otherwise lawful administration of criminal justice, and that was actually the amendment that Representative Nelson offered up, because everyone who was in that discussion in Civil Law and Procedure, they understood what the context of administration of criminal justice meant in Louisiana, which pretty much alludes to hard labor, or forced labor.
So what we did not want to do was implicate working opportunities that are already in place for incarcerated people, being work release programs and actual jobs that are afforded. And also in that situation, being that slavery and involuntary servitude are abolished and prohibited with no exception, that actually opens up the ambiguity of administration of criminal justice in Louisiana, because the personhood of incarcerated people has been in tact. So now, they can actually argue in court, they have a chance now, before they couldn't even file a lawsuit about this, but if we would have passed it, it would have given us the first step we needed to give incarcerated people a chance to actually challenge the Department of Corrections, to pay them for a full wage for their labor and not have crazy amounts of money extracted out of their check as well for work release programs for incarcerated people. Right now, none of that is being impacted. It's remaining as is because we voted that amendment down.
When I mentioned something about the Utah language on Twitter, and I'm obviously not anywhere near as informed on this as you, so I didn't want to get super into it, but someone pushed back on that saying, "Well, you know, laws in Louisiana are different, so you can't just take the language from Utah and put it in Louisiana and expect it to work the same." Do y'all have any thoughts on that?
Yes. That person was right, no laws in any state are the same, but they're very similar. The one thing about Louisiana law, as far as inside of criminal justice, is revised statute 15-184-825C, which says that, in Louisiana, a person can be sentenced to hard labor, depending on their conviction. Now, what this was going to do, it was going to change the definition of hard labor. As you can see, the wording is very, very important. So that means anything lined up with slavery and involuntary servitude will have to now be prohibited, it will be considered unlawful, in every sense of the matter, as Maria said about not getting the proper pay, making people work against their will, not getting proper medical care, access to access to their families, and so on and so forth.
So that's what this was about. It would have made those type of things unlawful and hard labor would change. As you know, if you're convicted of a felony, you're convicted to hard labor. If you're convicted of a misdemeanor, you're not convicted to hard labor, which changes the workage, as far as the work and the type of work you do, and if you are compensated or not. But like I said, this is about the inhumane treatment about human trafficking and just the monopolizing off of human bodies on a daily basis. And in the revised statutes, there is a section that talks about how much the prisons make per person per day, which is $24.50. It's actually there. So people have to know what the the Louisiana revised statutes mean.
Another piece of disinformation or misinformation was that it will put a limit on involuntary servitude. The bill clearly says slavery and involuntary servitude are prohibited period. That is it. And the sub paragraph, like Maria said, all that means is that the work release programs will not stop, which actually help people. But now the definition of what that work is, is going to change, because now slavery and involuntary servitude are prohibited. And people tried to say that involuntary servitude was different from slavery. They're very, very similar and the same, but if someone challenges you on that as they challenged us, if you look up in the Black's Law Dictionary, which is the law of the land for for almost all of law, when you look up the word involuntary servitude, it has the word slavery right next to it.
And so that's what we had, we had not a rebuttal, but we had pure fact of what everything meant, what the sub paragraph meant, and the actual mission of Decarcerate and the national network. So that's why we asked people to vote Yes on 7. And now since it has gone the other way, we have to go back again, to move in that same direction. But now we're in a moment, a place of teaching, and now people are all paying attention. And so that's what we are. We are a teaching organization, what we know, the people know.
Who was against this? And you mentioned that prisons get paid per, what is it, bed they fill? Is that the $24 a day? Is that who might be against this being passed?
The person who was against it was the bill sponsor. We really don't understand why. We didn't have good communication after the bill passed, and maybe he received counsel from someone else. But we know that with the sub paragraph, it made the people who work for criminal justice, that the work was not going to stop. That's what they are pretty much afraid of. And this subparagraph that's all it said, that work was not going to stop, the programs were going to continue. And all we wanted was the people's personhood to come back to them and not be treated as subhuman.
And that's part of that greater movement of trying to repeal the 13th, which I think also needs to be made clear. But I mean, besides this year, who would be against this? Is it the folks who have private prisons who rely on that labor? Or am I off-base?
Yeah, the people who benefit monetarily from this for sure. Your mega corporations who benefit from prison labor could be very well against this because they would have to actually pay people their full wage at this point. Also, there might be some leaders that, you know, wardens or whatnot who lead different prisons or for-profit prisons, who may get a cut of whatever earnings are made off of prison labor in partnership with some other corporation that's contracting with that prison for labor. These people, who may actually be impacted by workers or incarcerated people who are working to be paid their full wage, I can see them giving some opposition.
And it did not pass in 2021. It did, if I understood Omari correctly, unanimously in 2022?
Yes, we had so many legislators sign and that's what's the confusing piece to many of the leaders who were part of the Yes on 7 Coalition, because many of the legislators signed on after the amendment was made into the law. And because the law was, once it was signed, I mean, the amendment happened during the discourse, in the hearing session for Civil Law and Procedure. So once it matriculated out there, and it went to the floor, that's when all these co authors came on in the House side, and then it went over to the Senate side and more co authors on the Senate side signed on. So that's where a lot of the confusion came in, you know.
And also, to Laramie's point, where there was a disconnect between the sponsor and our advocacy group was the fact that we were in constant communication with him. He even came to a celebratory event with us in June. You know, we shared that video of him saying that he was happy about how things happened, and, you know, we saw victory and went for it in that direction. And the next step is having the question on the ballot, you know. So what, four to eight weeks after that, to see all the sudden -- and we told him, "Hey, we're gonna have to edit this question, because we're gonna have to challenge the legislature on this, because the ballot question does not reflect the language of the actual law." And there was like no follow up from that. The next thing we saw was a quote from him in an article from the Business Report. And that really set the tone for how we proceeded forward leading up to November 8th.
Did you have something to add to that Laramie?
Yeah, it was actually 29 co sponsors. And we have to separate the definition from authors and sponsors, because the Abolish Slavery National Network and Decarcerate Louisiana were the authors and Representative Edmond Jordan was the sponsor, because you needed a sitting representative to actually sign on to push it through. But yes, there was a disconnect after it passed. And because it was a constitutional amendment, the governor could not veto it, because it was voted through the actual legislature. So once he signed it, it was actually going to be put up to vote, it was just a time of them going through the process, turning it into an act, and then actually coming on a ballot, which became amendment number seven.
So what is your concern then, since this has failed in 2021? And now you've got to go back to the drawing board in 2023. Do you have some concern that you'll have difficulty passing it through the legislature next year?
I feel like we're gonna have opposition again, like we did this year. But I'm more hopeful because we can take a bipartisan approach in a collaborative effort of legislators, more than one actually spearheading this effort, where they can actually see diversity in the leadership, not only along party lines, but ideological aspects as well. Because I think this will give us more advantage. The only concern we have though, is this being a fiscal session, there's a few limitations of how many bills different legislators can hold and really what is at the top of the priority list, because unfortunately, this wasn't at the top of everyone's priority list at the top of this year, and we're starting to see the impacts of that. So hopefully, everybody who can be influential and impactful are all on the same page about this effort come next year.
Are y'all talking to a legislator about bringing this?
Yes, we are we have a couple of legislators we have in mind reach out to.
Okay. And is there opportunity for there to be, you know, we've seen unanimous juries, a couple of big criminal justice reform things pass in the state. Is there an opportunity to get a big movement like that together and the criminal justice reform groups kind of working together, so that there's a lot more messaging and a lot more push for this?
Yeah. At first there was much hesitations for everyone to seamlessly come together at the very beginning because of the language on the ballot question. But being that a lot of lessons were learned coming out of this situation, and there's much more clarity that's being set for everyone about what is the best strategy to take, or the best approach to actually see this through, I'm more hopeful about more criminal justice groups coming on board with us.
This, we do believe will be a win. And it would have been a win for anyone dealing with human rights, anyone that's with criminal justice reform, prison reform, or just the loved ones of the ones who deal with this on a daily basis as far as being incarcerated. This is a win for everyone. This is not about Decarcerate. This is about people throughout the United States benefiting from removing this very, very ugly piece of language that has been sitting in Louisiana for the last 157 years. So we want to make sure that everyone has a chance to come to the table, and we move this forward yet again, like I said, with with hopefully no pushback, and everyone can be happy to say, look, we need to remove this. This isn Louisiana, we are very different, but we also are very powerful in starting and finishing a lot of things. So let's go ahead and finish. Let's finish this strong. Let's get it out of here. Let's move forward to the to the federal amendment next.
And what do we as advocates or general voters in Louisiana need to do better next time? What can we do better?
I would just say, just be in tune and up to date with the traction of the bill. We'll let everyone know when that bill is filed, what that bill number will be, and just need your support and engaging the legislature to see how important this is for us to really make a historic move like this as a state to help with our contribution for another historic move to happen in the country.
My story that I've come away with is that maybe we don't necessarily always need to listen to, as you said, someone with a title, the elected leaders. I'm not trying to say anything negative about our elected leaders. I'm just saying I believe our community groups really, maybe sometimes have the best message for us. And if we're listening to them, we might come away more informed. I'd like to be able to share ways for people to connect to y'all so they can get more information in the in the future and feel like they have a way to be better informed, because I certainly know a lot of people walked away going, "I did not want to vote to keep slavery in our constitution. That's not what I wanted to vote for." I feel like some people felt bad on the other side of it, that they didn't feel like they were fully informed.
I agree with that.
Y'all have any closing thoughts you want to end with? Go ahead, Laramie.
Yeah. And we and we do believe that. We believe that if the misinformation was not put out, and we had a chance to not be, I say shadowed locally, most people, we do believe that besides the 508,000 that voted yes on seven, the other 798,000, we do believe most of them would have said, "If vote yes on seven means to end slavery, that's what I want to do. I don't know what it means. I don't know where it's going, I'll find out. And let's move in that direction." But people were met with different pieces of information, different sample ballots that came out through their mail, and we don't fault them for following what, you know, people who are next to them or who represent them told them to do.
But we do believe that in the hearts of people in Louisiana, we believe over 85%, especially people who are not benefiting, want to end slavery, as they've done in four other states this past year. So we do believe in people, we know that people have great hearts here. We live here, our lineage is here. So we did definitely want to move forward and keep going and focused on the positive messaging and the actual education of what ending slavery means in Louisiana and the United States.
Anything else, Maria?
I would just say, the fight for liberation, and justice continues. We'll be back on the ground, you know, advocating for another piece of legislation to be filed for this upcoming legislative session. And we're just hopeful, we're just asking for those groups who are already on board with us, stay with us in the fight. For anyone else who wants to come and join us and add value to what we're doing, we welcome you. And we just encourage more people who want to be willing to learn, we're willing to teach. So thank you for having us.
Absolutely. Thank you all so much for coming on and sharing your knowledge and your wisdom. And I think to both yours points, really, if folks are engaged with this when it's in the legislative process, they'll know how to vote on the other side when it comes on their ballot. So maybe we can get people more engaged during legislative session next year.
Thanks. Thank you very much.
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