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May 6, 2014
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Many of us in the United Kingdom assume that the system of democracy in the United States of America is the same as the system of democracy in the United Kingdom. This could not be further from the truth. Democracy differs widely across much of the world and ‘Democracy’ is not a ‘one size that fits all’ approach to human management and governance.

The current Constitution of the United States of America highlights many of these different approaches but one of the major differences is the 13th Amendment. Passed by Congress on 31st January 1865 and ratified on 6th December 1865, the 13th Amendment abolished slavery and provides that:

“Neither Slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as punishment for crime wherefore the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States or any place subject to their jurisdiction”

As the 13th amendment still permitted forced labour or ‘involuntary servitude’ as punishment for criminals, many of the Southern States in America responded by passing laws essentially intended to criminalise African Americans. The State of Mississippi was the first State to pass such a law entitled ‘An Act to confer Civil Rights on Freemen’. The Act required ‘Black’ workers to contract with ‘White’ farmers by 1st January of each year or face punishment for vagrancy and idleness which were defined as public grievances to be punished as crimes.

‘Blacks’ could also be sentenced to forced labour for crimes including using obscene language, petty theft, selling cotton after sunset, a person of colour divorcing his wife, a person of colour divorcing her husband, a person of colour pursuing or practicing the trade of artisan, mechanic or shop keeper or any other trade or business for his own benefit, a person of colour doing business on equal terms with a white person, a person of colour working for a white person and deemed by the white employer to not have enough skill or experience and a black person being unemployed, (YouTube: Did the 13th Amendment Really End Slavery)

Many States passed these extremely strict new vagrancy laws and they were selectively enforced against African Americans. The free labour or ‘involuntary servitude’ of these African American ‘convicts’ was then sold by privately run prisons and penal colonies to farms, factories, lumber camps, quarries and mines.

In November 1865 the South Carolina legislature began to legislate the ‘Black Codes’. These Black Codes created separate laws, punishments and acceptable behaviors for anyone with more than one black great-grandparent, (in 1865 literally every black person in the United States had more than one black great-grandparent). Under these codes blacks could only work as farmers or servants and they had virtually no constitutional rights, including the right to vote or own land. Many other States introduced ‘Black Codes’ and these State laws were the basis of what became known as the ‘Jim Crow’ laws. These laws were widely used right up until the 1970’s. The 13th Amendment is still being used to this day.

American penal institutions are privately owned and these institutions use free labour or ‘involuntary servitude’ to make huge profits by selling the labour of ‘convicts’ to many large American corporations. This is legalised by the 13th Amendment.

Many States currently use Felon disenfranchisement laws which today means that roughly 6.1 million American Citizens cannot take part in Presidential elections. These are Citizens who have been convicted of crimes. That’s about 2.5% of the voting population in the United States. Many of this population are not serving prison sentences indeed only 25% of this disenfranchised population is in prison. The vast majority are out of prison living in their communities. More than half of this disenfranchised population lives in the 12 most conservative States with the most stringent voting restrictions.

These State prohibitions disproportionately affect African Americans, particularly African American men. In some States more than 20% of African American men are disenfranchised from voting. The national figure overall is 7%. Conversely, Maine and Vermont, both overwhelming white States, do not have any felon voting restrictions, even inmates can vote.

African Americans in the American penal system.

One in three of the prison population in the United States is African American, yet African Americans are only one in six of the general population, (NAACP 2009, Department for Justice 2014). 14 million White Americans regularly use drugs, compared to 2.6 million African Americans. Yet 10 times more African Americans are jailed annually for drug offences.

A 2013 study by the NAACP confirmed that ‘Black’ men are much more likely to be arrested and incarcerated than ‘White’ men.

In concluding this inaugural blog the 13th Amendment has allowed for the continuation of Slavery. By any definition Slavery is ‘involuntary servitude’. Incarceration is then used as a further excuse to deny, in the main, convicted African Americans from voting. The vast majority of African Americans vote for the Democratic Party and without the felon disenfranchisement laws the Republican Party would struggle to have a President appointed. The United States of America is an ‘interesting’ example of modern democracy in action.

Historically the 13th Amendment has assisted the Republican Party to prosper and win more State and Presidential Elections than the Democratic Party. The current President won office through the ‘Electoral College’ or State elections. However overall nationally the Democrats received almost 3 million more votes than the Republicans.

In the UK we do not take away a citizens right to vote once they have served a prison sentence. We do not as a matter of equality and inclusion define who can participate in our ‘general elections’ once they are a registered citizen. We do not take away the most important fundamental right of any citizen, the right to vote. But above all else, we do not cause a convicted individual to carry out ‘involuntary servitude’ or slavery in the British penal system. We encourage prisoners to work and albeit not a perfect system UK prisons do attempt to rehabilitate and not exploit convicted prisoners.


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