The Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution was ratified 155 years ago this month. Delayed almost a year after its passing due to the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln, the Amendment officially abolished American slavery in 1865. Yet, the fight for freedom was far from over.


Involuntary servitude continued to persist in the U.S. as the Thirteenth Amendment banned slavery in all circusmtances “except as a punishment for crime.” Many took advantage of this particular loophole to imprison and continue extorting labor from former slaves soon after the amendment’s passing. A repressive set of laws known as the Black Codes were passed in many Confederate states, criminalizing joblessness and other mundane activities that made it easy to imprison African Americans and force them back into systems of involuntary servitude. 


Even today, the language of the Thirteenth Amendment enables the practice of labor extortion in America’s criminal justice system. With the help of the resources below, we take a look back at how the Thirteenth Amendment remains connected to practices of involuntary servitude in America, despite its historic promise of freedom.



13th directed by Ava DuVernay (2016)

A thought-provoking film that examines how our modern day criminal justice system is built on practices of involuntary servitude and racial oppression that originated from slavery and the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment.



“US lawmakers unveil anti-slavery constituitional amendment” by Aaron Morrison, Associated Press

Recent acknowledgment of labor exploitation in US prisons has prompted lawmakers to propose removing language from the Thirteenth Amendment which allows for involuntary servitude in the criminal justice system.


“US inmates stage nationwide prison labor strike over ‘modern slavery’” by Ed Pilkington, The Guardian

In 2018, US inmates staged a labor strike to protest labor extortion in prisons nationwide. This article examines the impacts of the strike and how critical prison labor is to the national economy.


“Slavery gave America a fear of black people and a taste for violent punishment. Both still define our criminal-justice system.” by Brian Stevenson, The New York Times

An in-depth look at how the continued criminalization of African Americans since the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment impedes the fight for racial justice today.


“How the Black Codes Limited African American Progress After the Civil War” by Nadra Kareem Little, History

A thought-provoking read on the Black Codes passed after the U.S. Civil War and their impacts on the persistence involuntary servitude.


“Episode 101: The Thirteenth Amendment” by Civics 101

Law professor Maria Ontivernos discusses the historical context behind the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment and the ways in which legislation passed after the Civil War both helped and impeded the fight for racial equality.