Proposed TN Constitutional Amendment Allows Prisoner Labor Without It Being Considered Slavery

Photo Credit: Richard Elzey / CC

Published May 6, 2021

By Jon Styf [The Center Square contributor] –

The Tennessee House has approved a proposed constitutional amendment that would change the state constitution’s wording to allow for prisoners to work without it being considered slavery.

Tennessee Capitol Building in Nashville

The proposed amendment passed, 81-2, on Tuesday and will be on the statewide ballot in November 2022.

Rep. Joe Towns, D-Memphis, said the bill language came directly from the Tennessee Department of Corrections and was intended to eliminate any confusion about whether work from prisoners, who are paid, could fall under the slavery ban.

The constitution currently reads “slavery as a punishment for crime,” while the new proposed language is “Slavery and involuntary servitude are forever prohibited. Nothing in this section shall prohibit an inmate from working when the inmate has been duly convicted of a crime.”

“Today is an historic day as this state has taken a definitive step forward in stripping all forms of slavery from the Tennessee State Constitution,” Towns said in a statement. “Some Tennesseans may be prisoners, but, by God, they will not be slaves.”

Two Republicans disagreed with the measure.

Rep. Susan Lynn, R-Mount Juliet, noted prisoners are paid even though Tennessee does not require them to be paid, and she said she was concerned the second sentence in the proposed language could lead to Tennessee getting sued related to prisoner work.

Rep. Chris Todd, R-Jackson, said he was fundamentally against changing the constitution, especially in this case.

“There’s no need to rewrite this,” Todd said.

The Tennessee Senate passed the amendment by the required two-thirds margin, 26-4, on March 13. It previously passed the General Assembly last year.

Amending Tennessee’s constitution requires two approvals by the state Legislature; once by simple majority and again by two-thirds majority after an election before it goes to the public for a vote during the next gubernatorial election.

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2 thoughts on “Proposed TN Constitutional Amendment Allows Prisoner Labor Without It Being Considered Slavery

  • May 6, 2021 at 2:46 pm

    I have a question???? I thought if you are incarcerated, your Liberty was set aside until you “settled the question” of the reason why you are incarcerated!!?? I thought United States Constitution, Bill of Rights, Article VI states this very succinctly, “In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the State and district wherein the crime shall have been committed, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law, and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the Assistance of Counsel for his defence.” So upon waiting for your “speedy and public trial…” you are held in jail, awaiting trial” I don’t think I ever heard it said, “you are in slavery”????? You want to be found “Not Guilty” so that you can “once again be Free”, right???? I reckon until we get to “better times” we’d better leave Our Founding Documents (be it a State Constitution or The Constitution of the United States) just as they are. For God & Country

    • May 6, 2021 at 7:52 pm

      This as it’s worded only applies to convicted felons. As you mentioned all are considered innocent while awaiting trial so this wouldn’t apply.
      Our constitution provides for anti slavery laws, it does seem redundant because convicted prisoners are paid in TN.


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