Does involuntary servitude still exist in NJ? For now, it does

While slavery as it’s taught in history class may have ended generations ago, the idea of being a “slave to the state” continues to exist.

People within the New Jersey prison system are required to work, and although the 13th Amendment eliminated slavery in the most basic sense, the idea of involuntary servitude is still allowed as “punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.”

Legislation that has been introduced in Trenton could change that — but whether the proposal gains any traction remains to be seen.

Resolutions to amend the state constitution were introduced in both chambers of the Legislature in March 2022. And this isn’t the first time these efforts have been made. Previous iterations of the same resolutions were introduced in 2020 for the last legislative session.

The seal of New Jersey on the rotunda floor in the newly-renovated Statehouse in Trenton on Wednesday, March 22, 2023.

Assemblyman Anthony Verrelli and state Sen. James Beach have yet to schedule committee hearings, and state Senate President Nick Scutari and Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin have done little to change that. 

Richard McGrath, a spokesperson for the Senate Majority Office, said the “proposal is under review” in the upper chamber. The Assembly Majority Office similarly said the “legislation is under review.”

What would the legislation do?

The resolutions would amend the state constitution by adding a paragraph to read that “no person shall be held in slavery or involuntary servitude in this State, including as a penalty or a punishment for a crime.”

If the resolution were to pass the Legislature, it would be up to voters in the next general election to decide whether it should be implemented, through the question: “Do you approve amending the Constitution to prohibit slavery and involuntary servitude? This would include involuntary servitude as a penalty for a crime. Involuntary servitude is when a person is forced to work for another person.”

The explanation of the resolution notes that “prisoners in New Jersey are required to engage in labor, for a minimal pay, while they are incarcerated.”

“The state should not have the power to compel individuals to labor against their will. This amendment ensures that no prisoner in this state would be involuntarily forced into labor, even if the labor performed by the prisoner would be compensated,” it reads.

Marleina Ubel, a policy analyst for New Jersey Policy Perspective, said in a statement that while it may be “hard to believe that slavery still exists … there’s no better way to describe how the prison system dehumanizes and exploits people who are incarcerated.”

“There is no justification for this modern-day slavery. We have to remember that these are human beings with families and communities and futures,” Ubel said. “Being incarcerated shouldn’t change anyone’s right to work with dignity, fair pay, safe conditions and freedom from coercion. Knowing what we know about New Jersey having the highest Black-white disparity in incarceration, this is not only an issue of human rights but racial justice.”

The think tank’s stance is that this legislation as “well overdue” and that the “delay doesn’t match up with the progressive values that are often talked about when thinking of New Jersey.”

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Federal efforts under way, too

It’s not just a New Jersey issue, though. Sen. Cory Booker is calling for similar changes on a federal level.

This year, he has introduced a resolution to strike the slavery clause of the 13th Amendment as well as a package of bills that would end unfair and abusive labor practices in correctional facilities.

US Senator City Booker talks to people before the event. After years of neglect and abandonment Hinchliffe Stadium is being unveiled at a ribbon cutting in Paterson, NJ on Friday May 19, 2023.

“The Thirteenth Amendment abolished slavery ‘except as a punishment for crime,’ but this language has enabled and expanded the exploitation of incarcerated people in our country’s prisons,” Booker said at the time. “Because fair labor standards are virtually nonexistent in U.S. prisons, incarcerated people are often compelled to work in abusive and unsafe conditions. They work for little to no pay, on average making between 13 and 52 cents per hour in most jobs. And if they refuse to work, they face retaliation by correctional officers and have limited avenues under federal law to fight for their civil rights. The current state of prison labor in America is inhumane and unacceptable.”

Katie Sobko covers the New Jersey Statehouse. Email:


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