Slavery as Punishment Just Became Illegal in Colorado

An 1897 constitutional provision allowed incarcerated people in Colorado to work for no pay. Amendment A, voted into law on Tuesday, officially abolished slavery as punishment for crimes in the state.

by Leila Ettachfini
Nov 7 2018, 5:36pm

unite images via Stocksy

A measure to amend Colorado's constitution to outlaw slavery without exception has passed. Before the amendment's success, Colorado law allowed incarcerated people to work for no pay, due to an 1897 constitutional provision. The state’s Constitutional Amendment A on Tuesday's ballot asked Coloradans if they supported prohibiting "slavery and involuntary servitude as punishment for a crime."

A similar amendment in 2016 which would have also prohibited slavery and involuntary servitude as punishment for a crime did not pass, due, largely, to what many believe was confusing language.

Those who opposed changing the Colorado constitution to outlaw slavery and involuntary servitude said they feared Amendment A would get rid of community service as punishment for low-level offenses. Among those who were opposed to the amendment is Republican district attorney from Mesa County Dan Rubinstein. “While those pushing the amendment advertise it as ‘abolishing slavery,’ that occurred more than 150 years ago,” he told The Colorado Independent.


Advocates like Jumoke Emery, lead organizer for Abolish Slavery Colorado, however, believe that the law is crucial, both symbolically and literally. “The constitution isn’t a symbolic document,” Emery told MotherJones. “It serves as a basis for all of our laws.” Emery does not believe that the law will affect community service sentences.

While inmates working in Colorado are generally paid, their wages are often below a dollar a day. Those who recently worked on the frontlines of wildfires were paid starting wages of $0.86 per day, which increased to $6 per day if faced with an actual fire. “Regardless of how we feel about the criminal justice system, it should be clear to folks that it shouldn’t be slavery,” Emery told MotherJones.