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  • What does it mean when prisoners are called "slaves of the state"?
    It suggests that, like slaves who were considered property of their owners, prisoners have limited freedoms and are subject to the control and authority of the state or government. The term emphasizes the loss of autonomy and the imposition of labor or other obligations upon individuals who are incarcerated. It underscores the power dynamic between the state and prisoners, highlighting the often unequal relationship and the lack of agency experienced by those within the penal system. The term was first used in landmark Virginia Supreme Court case Ruffin v. Commonwealth in 1871. In Ruffin v. Commonwealth, a prisoner argued that his Eighth Amendment rights were being violated because he was subjected to cruel and unusual punishment while incarcerated. The Virginia Supreme Court, however, rejected Ruffin's claim and ruled that prisoners had no constitutional rights while in prison. The court's decision in Ruffin v. Commonwealth affirmed the legal concept that prisoners were essentially property of the state, with no inherent rights beyond what the state granted them. This ruling had significant implications for the treatment of prisoners in Virginia and shaped the legal framework governing the rights of incarcerated individuals. Ruffin v. Commonwealth reflected the prevailing view at the time that prisoners were subject to absolute control and could be treated as the state saw fit. Over time, however, this perspective has evolved, and courts have recognized that prisoners retain certain constitutional rights, albeit subject to reasonable limitations necessary for the legitimate goals of incarceration.
  • What would amending the state constitution to abolish all forms of slavery actually do? Isn't it just symbolic?
    Amending the state constitution in Virginia to abolish all forms of slavery, including as punishment for a crime, would have several significant implications, and it would be more than just symbolic. Legal Abolition of Slavery: Amending the state constitution would explicitly eliminate any provisions that may still exist in the constitution or state laws that permit or condone slavery. This would mean that, from a legal perspective, slavery would be completely abolished in Virginia, and the state would be officially recognized as having rejected any form of involuntary servitude or forced labor. Clear Prohibition on Forced Labor as Punishment: By including language to abolish slavery as punishment for a crime, the amendment would make it unconstitutional to use forced labor as a form of punishment within the criminal justice system. This would address concerns about modern-day prison labor. Impact on Prison Labor Practices: The amendment will open the door for a reevaluation of prison labor practices in the state. Currently in Virginia, incarcerated workers are paid $0.27-$0.80 an hour, working without even the most basic workplace protections. Abolishing slavery as punishment for a crime would prompt policymakers to reassess and potentially reform these exploitative and inhumane practices. Human Rights and Social Justice: Beyond the legal and practical consequences, the amendment would hold significant symbolic importance. It would represent a public acknowledgment of past injustices and a commitment to the values of human rights and social justice. The amendment would reflect a societal stance against any form of slavery or forced labor, sending a powerful message to both present and future generations. Ripple Effect on Other States: Virginia has a unique historical context as one of the original thirteen colonies and a former slave state. An amendment of this nature could serve as a model for other states to follow, potentially leading to similar actions in other parts of the country. Interpretation and Legal Challenges: Although the amendment would explicitly abolish slavery, there could be legal challenges or debates about its interpretation and application in specific cases. Courts may need to define the boundaries and nuances of the amendment's language to ensure its effective implementation. In summary, amending the state constitution in Virginia to abolish all forms of slavery, including as punishment for a crime, would have substantive consequences in terms of the law, criminal justice practices, and societal values.
  • Why do this in Virginia when it doesn’t currently mention slavery in the state constitution?
    Because if no language exists in our state constitution protecting against slavery, then our citizens fall prey to the legalized slavery preserved by the U.S. Constitution’s 13th Amendment, which is what we now default to.
  • Wasn't slavery already abolished hundreds of years ago?
    The 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution is celebrated for abolishing slavery and involuntary servitude. However, to the surprise of many, it only ended chattel slavery, while legalizing the form that still exists in great measure today. Within its wording, the 13th Amendment to the Constitution includes an exception clause that allows for slavery and involuntary servitude to be used as punishment for crime. This is directly linked to the allowance of forced prison labor today. Immediately following the emancipation, southern states including Virginia passed a series of laws known as 'Black Codes'. These discriminatory, restrictive, and arbitrary laws were designed to limit the freedom of African Americans, and to ensure their availability as a cheap labor force after chattel slavery ended. The 'slavery loophole' allowed for the criminalization, incarceration, and re-enslavement Black people. Today, people who are incarcerated and labor under this exception are still disproportionately Black and Brown. We must take a stand to ensure that slavery and involuntary servitude are never a part of our country again.
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