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Slavery is still a legal punishment for crime in Tennessee. Amendment 3 could change that.

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Rachel Iacovone
/
WPLN
A billboard in Nashville's historically Black Bordeaux neighborhood calls for voters to say yes to Amendment 3 on the ballot.

The inspiration for Amendment 3 came about a decade ago, behind the bars and barbed wire of Riverbend Maximum Security Prison.

Rev. Jeannie Alexander was working as the prison’s chaplain, and an incarcerated man told her that slavery was never fully abolished in the state.

“As a former lawyer, I’m thinking like … that can’t be right,” she says.

But it was.

Tennessee’s constitution says that slavery is forever prohibited, except as punishment for a crime.

“I said, ‘Well, this just has to change,'” Alexander says. “This is — this is insane.”

From there, it was a long, bureaucratic road to get Amendment 3 on the ballot.

And Tennessee is one of five states, including Alabama, Louisiana, Oregon and Vermont, that are asking voters about slavery in the constitution this year.

‘The constitution has enslaved us’

“We are not slaves,” says Terrance Akins, a youth mentor in Nashville. “We are human beings.”

Akins spent 17 years behind bars.

“When I was incarcerated, my name became a number,” he says. “So I was property. I was not Terrance Akins because I became a number.”

He says it’s impossible to ignore the roots of this language — from slavery, to Jim Crow and even Tennessee’s practice of leasing incarcerated people to companies.

And there is nothing in state or even the country’s constitution to prevent revisiting that history.

“My ancestors did not fight, they did not die, they did not sacrifice so much so that I can be a slave,” Akins says. “So are we really free in America? No, we’re not. The constitution has enslaved us.”

Voting yes on Amendment 3 would change that.

The semantic and moral argument is black and white, which is why there is basically no opposition to Amendment 3. Even Tennessee’s Department of Correction came out in support of it.

But TDOC did ask for one addition, which peels back the curtain on a gray area: it wanted language added that says the amendment would not prevent incarcerated people from working.

‘The price tag’

“If we don’t have the labor of those who are forced to live there, then we don’t have anyone to run those facilities,” says Barbi Brown, a policy director with the Tennessee Higher Education Initiative, who is formerly incarcerated. “I think maybe it’s easier to talk about the morality of the issue because that doesn’t necessarily come with a price tag.”

The starting wage for workers behind bars in Tennessee is 17 cents an hour.

It’s a massive discount for work that would otherwise cost the state a lot of money.

“If we’re saving millions on something, then why would we want to get rid of it, even though it is horrible?” Brown asks sarcastically.

Her job while she was incarcerated helped pay her fines and fees, and gave her work experience that helped her after she left prison. But she says the low wages is just one of many ways that the state of Tennessee tells people like her that she’s not equal.

She says maybe the most egregious example of that is the fact that Brown is one of hundreds of thousands of Tennesseans that can’t vote on Amendment 3 — or at all — because of her prior convictions.

“Have we made progress by putting this on a ballot, but still not allowing the voices directly impacted to speak about it?” she wonders.

Paige Pfleger is a reporter for WOSU, Central Ohio's NPR station. Before joining the staff of WOSU, Paige worked in the newsrooms of NPR, Vox, Michigan Radio, WHYY and The Tennessean. She spent three years in Philadelphia covering health, science, and gender, and her work has appeared nationally in The Washington Post, Marketplace, Atlas Obscura and more.
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