Prison Law Blog

Sara Mayeux

A Different Take on Prison Labor and the Thirteenth Amendment

with one comment

As I noted in my post this morning, courts have generally interpreted the Thirteenth Amendment’s punishments-for-crimes exception to bar legal challenges to prison labor requirements. But I should have noted there is an alternative view which holds that this interpretation is a misreading. Law professor Raja Raghunath of the University of Denver has reminded me of his 2009 article in the William & Mary Bill of Rights Journal, which argues that the Thirteenth Amendment has been historically misconstrued by the federal courts, and that many forms of modern prison labor would fall under the constitutional ban of involuntary servitude, properly construed.

Prof. Raghunath’s article can be downloaded here or at SSRN. From the abstract:

Although in some states inmates may still be sentenced to hard labor, in most systems today they labor under a more general requirement that, if they are able-bodied, they must work. Reading the word ‘punishment’ in the Thirteenth Amendment in a manner consistent with the way that same word is used in the Eighth Amendment, and is understood in the rest of the Constitution, reveals that only those inmates who are forced to work because they have been so sentenced – which is not the vast majority of inmates compelled to work in the present day – should be exempted from the general ban on involuntary servitude. …

This article argues that the reason courts have broadened of the meaning of ‘punishment’ in the Thirteenth Amendment, while simultaneously narrowing it in the Eighth Amendment, is because these directly contradictory acts of constitutional interpretation both serve the same end of judicial deference to the actions of prison officials, which has resulted in the general abdication by courts of their constitutional obligations to oversee those officials’ actions. This article also theorizes about the potential outcomes of interpreting the Thirteenth Amendment properly with respect to prison labor, and suggests that the resulting recognition of the punitive purposes that have always driven our prison labor programs may actually lead to an improvement in the overall well-being of prisoners, and perhaps of society as a whole.


Written by sara

December 16, 2010 at 2:36 pm

One Response

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  1. Thanks for this clarification. The actual text of the amendment supports Prof. Raghunath’s view that the 13th amendment permits involuntary servitude only if it is specifically imposed as punishment.

    At the same time, and apart from the interpretative question, the increasingly prevalent practice of subjecting prisoners to years of “enforced idleness” is disturbing.

    Va Kerr

    December 16, 2010 at 6:13 pm

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