Election Outcome Impacts on U.S. State-Sponsored Forced Labor

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By Catie Fowler, Projects Manager

Donald Trump’s unexpected rise to power continues to take the world by surprise in new ways. Though his election victory may have come as an initial shock, the negative impact his proposed legislation could have on forced labor reform should come as less of one. If Mr. Trump’s tough on crime and tough on immigration rhetoric is any indication, his policies will contribute to the country’s continued reliance on the federal prison system as a tool for reform.  On the local level, Colorado’s rejection of proposed Amendment T, restricting forced labor in the state prison system, mirrors what is likely to happen on the federal level.  Last year’s election outcomes promise to have significant ramifications in the fight against forced labor as it takes place within the United States of America.

Mass Incarceration and Forced Labor

The U.S. currently maintains the highest rate of incarceration in the world.  The nation represents only 4.4% of the world population and yet houses an approximate 22% of its prisoners.  This is relevant to the fight against forced labor because, both in the state of Colorado and at the federal level, slavery is still technically allowed to exist in U.S. prisons.  On the federal level, this is allowed by Amendment 13 to the U.S. Constitution, which reads:

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.

Supposedly meant to lead to the abolition of slavery in 1865, the exception provided by Amendment 13 and by similar legislation in the Colorado state constitution means that slavery is still legal in the U.S. so long as it is used as a punishment for a crime.  As the U.S. continues to disproportionately incarcerate people of color, this means that the forced labor that occurs in the U.S. prison system carries with it an eerie echo of the nation’s long history of the enslavement of black-bodied people.  Historically, this has included the convict leasing system in which black prisoners were literally rented out to plantation owners after the Civil War.

Colorado’s Amendment T

Forced labor also continues to be legal on the local level within state-funded prisons.  While last year’s election saw the the proposal of Colorado’s Amendment T to end forced labor in Colorado state prisons, the amendment failed to pass.  Amendment T would have altered the provision in the Colorado state constitution, which reads, “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,” removing the latter half permitting forced labor as a form of legal punishment.  The amendment lost the vote by less than 2%.

Presidential Policy Implications

On the federal level, it seems we will see not only a continuation of forced labor in prisons, but potentially an increase in the use of those prisons as well.  President-elect Trump’s victory was rapidly followed by an increase in investment in private prison stocks.  Trump promises to be a tough-on-crime candidate, which explains the upsurge in privatized prison investment that followed his victory.  He encourages an increase in private prisons, stating “I do think we can do a lot of privatizations, and private prisons. It seems to work a lot better.”  This threatens to undo the movement to phase out private prisons that began last year, after findings that private prisons were more dangerous than federal ones.

The President-elect also promises to be tough on immigration, so the increasing need for private prisons would be augmented by the additional demand for new ICE detention centers to house the 4 million immigrants that Trump promises to deport once in office.  The change would go hand-in-hand with Trump’s 100 Day Initiative, in which he promises to introduce a new “End Illegal Immigration Act,” fund the construction of a wall along the southern border of the country, and impose prison penalties for illegal entry into the states.  In this way, Trump’s policies on immigration will have a distinct impact on forced labor as well.

As a self-proclaimed leader of the free world, the United States should examine the way its federal and state policies lead to forced labor.  Only when every citizen of the U.S. has the right to be free from slavery or involuntary servitude, regardless of whether they have committed a crime, can we to claim ourselves an international model for freedom.  It will require constant vigilance and pressure from those who stand for human rights–on this and many other issues–to ensure that the U.S. upholds that example under its new administration.

*The views and opinions expressed in this blog do not necessarily reflect the position of the HTC

Photo via Pixabay


For additional information on Mr. Trump’s policy positions and how they intersect with human trafficking more generally, please see our latest blog.  

If you would like to learn more about prison labor in the U.S. please see our blog on the topic from last year.


About the Human Trafficking Center

The Human Trafficking Center, housed in the University of Denver’s Josef Korbel School of International Studies, is the only two-year, graduate-level, professional-training degree in human trafficking in the United States. One way graduate students contribute to the study of human trafficking is by publishing research-based blogs. The HTC was founded in 2002 to apply sound research and reliable methodology to the field of human trafficking research and advocacy.

Founded in 1964, the Josef Korbel School of International Studies is one of the world’s leading schools for the study of international relations. The School offers degree programs in international affairs and is named in honor of its founder and first dean, Josef Korbel.


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