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Mass Incarceration: The Slavery Loophole in the 13th Amendment

In a world with so much injustice, inequality, and racism, it is more important than ever to use your voice. The United States of America has had a long, grueling history of systemic racism, and today I reiterate a really important question: Isn’t the 13th Amendment a loophole for modern-day slavery? I think young people need to be well-versed on this issue, especially when our values are questioned by people in power. (That’s why I keep a mini Constitution in my purse at all times!)

The 13th Amendment became a part of the United States Constitution in 1865. Section 1 reads as follows:

“Neither 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.” 

Washington Capitol
Photo by ElevenPhotographs from Unsplash

The 13th Amendment prohibits slavery and involuntary servitude except as a punishment for crime. This exception leads to some very important, valid questions — couldn’t the word “crime” now be used to inexplicably punish African Americans and continue slavery, just with the word “criminal” instead of “slave”? Could this clause be a serious loophole that allows for modern-day slavery in the form of mass incarceration? 

Systemic racism through the prison system can be traced back to what President Richard Nixon called the “War on Drugs.” This rhetorical war was the first time in U.S. politics where a more aggressive approach was taken towards handling addiction and drug abuse, thus criminalizing drug addiction. President Ronald Reagan, however, took this rhetorical war and created a literal war on drugs by making drug use a criminal offense as opposed to a health issue.

According to Michelle Alexander, author of NEW JIM CROW: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, Reagan increased the federal law enforcement agencies’ budget from $8 million to $95 million and the funding for the Department of Defense from $33 million to $1.042 billion in 1991. As the funding for these federal law enforcement agencies was raised with the sole purpose of making drug usage a criminal offense, the funding for agencies responsible for drug treatment and prevention dramatically decreased. This development of the ideology that drugs are a crime as opposed to a sickness that requires medical attention was heavily rallied through the media by powerful, white politicians. When you decrease the amount of resources available to the people, and increase the amount of policing and racial profiling, the result is the modern day prison system that just happens to allow for legal slavery under Section 1 of the 13th Amendment. 

Black Lives Matter Protest
Photo Joshua Santos from Pexels

Convictions for drug offenses are the single most important cause of the explosion in incarceration rates in the United States. Alexander cites that approximately a half-million people are in prison or jail for a drug offense today, compared to the 41,100 in 1980, which is an increase of 1,100 percent. A disproportionate amount of African Americans go to prison primarily for drug charges. The result of having an undoubtedly biased and deeply flawed prison system is the mass incarceration of African Americans, which has perpetuated modern day slavery through the loophole in the 13th Amendment. 

This trend of being “hard on crime” was an ideology also adopted by President Bill Clinton.  He introduced the “three strikes” provision of the 1994 federal crime bill, which incarcerated millions of people on the basis of  drug possession. After this law, thousands of third strikers were sent to prison for life without parole, which led to overpopulation of our prisons and did far more harm than good. To this day, our prisons remain overpopulated.

Another important statistic mentioned in the Netflix documentary 13TH is that African American men account for 6.5% of the United States population, but a striking 40.2% of the prison population. Cory Booker points out in 13TH (which I highly recommend, by the way) that we now have more African Americans under criminal supervision than ALL the slaves in the 1850s. 


The prison system is in dire need of major reform, from the systemic biases against males and minorities to the constitutional failure that has allowed slavery to persist in the 21st century. In today’s world, it’s more important than ever to use your voice, your privilege, and your education for the betterment of society. It’s also crucial we contribute to efforts that attempt to erase these inhumane, racist practices. I have linked below an info card that includes some essential resources to educate yourself and others around you! 


Hello everyone! My name is Aemen (pronouns: she/her), and I am currently a 3rd year Junior Transfer student at UC Berkeley! My major is English with a minor in Public Policy. In my free time, I enjoy writing, listening to music, and hanging out with my friends. I also love listening to Investigative Journalism podcasts, my favorite is Serial!
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