Shame on Colorado for Amendment T
In an electoral result that no prognosticator predicted, Colorado voters approved retaining language permitting slavery in the state Constitution. “There shall never be in this state either slavery or involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime, whereof the party shall have been duly convicted,” Section 26 of the Colorado Constitution reads.
This constitutional language, which pre-dates designation of Colorado as a state in 1876, is also included in the U. S. Constitution as part of the 13th Amendment, passed by Congress January 31, 1865, and ratified by states on December 6, 1865.
What this language says in layman’s terms is that convicted criminals can be forced to work in prisons without pay — in effect, as slaves. As Kyle Harris points out in The Colorado Independent, “Under both the Colorado and U. S. constitutions, slavery is a permissible way to punish a person convicted of a crime. It’s what allows corporations to enlist prisoners to work without pay.”
Pastor Del Phillips of the Greater Metro Denver Ministerial Alliance points out this punishment clause is used in prisons where corporations exploit unpaid inmate labor. “I think it is a travesty that there are corporations that are being allowed to prosper because of the punishment of an individual. That’s out of sorts. That’s out of balance.
“If it’s possible for a business to make money from an industry inside a prison, then they should have to pay for that work that’s being done behind those closed walls.”
Amendment T, which was defeated at the ballot box last Tuesday, would have removed the slavery language from our state constitution. Considering that the measure was put on the ballot by a unanimous vote of both houses of the Colorado Legislature, and that no opposition to the amendment emerged during the run-up to the election, backers of Amendment T were understandably shocked when the amendment was defeated.
It is not as though Amendment T made some radical change in the way our prisons are managed, or the work performed by inmates. Colorado prison work programs are voluntary and include some form of reimbursement for inmates. In some prisons and jails, work programs are waitlisted.
When it became apparent last week that Amendment T was losing. Democratic state Rep. Jovan Melton of Aurora, one of the sponsors of the amendment, conceded defeat. But, he suggested, voters were probably confused by the ballot language. Melton also cites a distrust of government as a factor in the defeat of the measure.
Will Dickerson, lead organizer for a pro-Amendment T group called Together Colorado, agreed that some voters probably were confused by the ballot language. He believes however, that some voters, though probably a small number, did understand the question, but knowingly voted to keep the slavery language in the constitution.
“It makes me sad,” Dickerson told the Washington Post, “that it was even a question for some people whether or not this would be something they would want to support…. This is talking about our nation, particularly our state’s ideology and what we believe is OK. That informs everything we do.”
Looking forward to running a similar amendment in the next election, Melton told CNN, “I think what would need to be done in 2018 is a much more rigorous education and make sure people understand it. Or, we need to revisit the language and see if there’s a way to make it less confusing to the voter.”
Actually, Amendment T supporters need to do both. Certainly the muddled language of the amendment could have been a factor: “Shall there be an amendment to the Colorado constitution concerning the removal of the exception to the prohibition of slavery and involuntary servitude when used as a punishment for persons duly convicted of a crime?” Amendment T read. Not easily understood for a simple “yes” or “no” response.
It would be comforting to think that the failure of Amendment T was simply a failure to communicate on the part of its supporters. But it would also be naïve.
The rising racial tension surrounding the election of Donald Trump was a more likely contributor to the loss of Amendment T than the awkward amendment language.
In two years, when Amendment T is on the ballot again, Coloradans will have to opportunity to make their minds clear on the question of slavery. They should speak with one voice to remove forever this last vestige of a shameful past from the state constitution.