I have been bothered by the phrasing of the 13th Amendment since I first read it, in particular the bold:

Section 1. 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.

Section 2. Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.

This is less clear wording than if the bold were omitted, but was it intended to allow for slavery to continue? Clint Richardson of RealityBloger claims that this allows private correctional companies to basically be slave labor sweatshops, and compares its legal status to that of marijuana:

Marijuana is illegal without a (state approved) doctors prescription, making it legal for state approved persons by state approved distributors.

Slavery is illegal without a judges (the STATE’S) prescription (permission), making it legal for state approved institutions to have slaves which are state approved (condemned) individuals.

Richardson claims a conspiracy between courts and prison companies, and make generally unfalsifiable accusations.

Jim Liske of USA Today wrote an article titled "Yep, Slavery Is Still Legal" which also asserts that slavery is technically still a legal punishment for convicts. He slightly contradicts his title at one point:

Importantly, Supreme Court decisions of the 20th century ensured that no one today is sentenced to actual slavery as a form of criminal punishment, but shades of Douglass' critique still ring true.

But he does not elaborate on which court decisions ban slavery or how.

In trying to determine when and how slavery was completely banned in the USA, I have come up short. Sources that assert that slavery is banned generally attribute it to the 13th amendment. Has there been any legislation or legal precedent that outlaws slavery in stricter terms than the 13th amendment? Are state governments responsible for banning it individually? Is slavery still legal in the United States?

  • 12
    'Is slavery still legal in the United States?' It all depends on your definition of slavery. If you consider penal labor, where the inmate is only paid a few cents per hour (if at all?), and to which the exception in the 13th Amendment applies, to be slavery, then slavery is still legal.
    – jarnbjo
    Dec 3 '15 at 13:24
  • The bold clause in your first quote is only referring to involuntary servitude before it, not both involuntary servitude and slavery.
    – TylerH
    Aug 23 '17 at 14:19
  • @TylerH Now that you point it out, I can see that interpretation, are there any judicial decisions upholding this meaning?
    – Will
    Aug 23 '17 at 15:21
  • @Will I couldn't say; I'm not a legal scholar. My knowledge is mostly limited to business law.
    – TylerH
    Aug 23 '17 at 15:31
  • Just in case anyone is inclined to read the accepted answer without scrolling down to the comments below it: the accepted answer is incorrect. While the US did sign the treaty, it never ratified it, so the treaty's provisions have no force in US law.
    – phoog
    Feb 9 at 21:39

The United States signed the Convention to Suppress the Slave Trade and Slavery in 1956, which makes it law of the land.

It defines slavery as:

"the status or condition of a person over whom any or all of the powers attaching to the right of ownership are exercised"

Article 2 (b) binds the contracting parties to:

To bring about, progressively and as soon as possible, the complete abolition of slavery in all its forms.

In article 5 it says:

The High Contracting Parties recognise that recourse to compulsory or forced labour may have grave consequences and undertake, each in respect of the territories placed under its sovereignty, jurisdiction, protection, suzerainty or tutelage, to take all necessary measures to prevent compulsory or forced labour from developing into conditions analogous to slavery.

  • 5
    And I'm sure the for-profit prisons pay their legal staff exceedingly well to ensure they never quite cross the line in a way that's provable.
    – Shadur
    Dec 3 '15 at 13:44
  • 10
    Has the US ratified the treaty? A signed treaty doesn't make it the law of the land.
    – cpast
    Dec 3 '15 at 17:21
  • 7
    @cpast indeed, according to the UN, at treaties.un.org/Pages/…, the US has not ratified the treaty, so it is not in fact law of the land.
    – phoog
    Dec 4 '15 at 8:31
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    Even a ratified treaty is not "law of the land" unless it is self executing. This is the wrong answer for U.S. law. Dec 4 '15 at 16:46
  • 2
    @Davidmh The US Constitution is self-executing: it is directly enforceable in court without Congress passing laws to implement it (except for the part where Congress passes laws to establish courts). It is definitely not just a statement of philosophical principles, because it also lays out in some detail how the US government is structured. On the other hand, treaties may or may not be directly enforceable in court. They impose international obligations on the US, but it's up to Congress and the President to decide how (or if) to fulfill those.
    – cpast
    Jan 27 '17 at 4:06

Yes, of course slavery is illegal. "Involuntary servitude" imposed upon someone through due process of law is not slavery. This is analogous to a death sentence for a capital crime, which, because it is imposed by due process of law, is not murder. Similarly, the judicial imposition of a fine, or the forfeiture of other property, is not theft.

Now, rhetorically, one can speak of the conditions of modern imprisonment as "state-sanctioned slavery," just as death-penalty opponents speak of "state-sanctioned murder" and recipients of parking tickets can speak of "state-sanctioned theft." But there's a big difference between rhetoric and the law.

  • 2
    Lets not for get that the 13th amendment even says: "except as punishment for a crime"
    – A. K.
    Mar 16 '19 at 1:41

The criminalization of slavery is found at 18 USC 1581 et seq.

  • 1
    The question asked is more subtle than that. It is asking if the exception to the ban on slavery and involuntary servitude as punishment for a crime means that some forms of slavery, or at least involuntary servitude (which is a very close cousin of slavery) is allowed in that situation. So, this answer is incomplete to the point of being incorrect.
    – ohwilleke
    Feb 9 at 19:24

Slavery - treating a person as property - is illegal. What is not illegal is "...involuntary servitude...as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted". Without this clause the Thirteenth Amendment could be taken to prohibit imprisonment for crimes.


Section 2 says Congress has power to enforce the amendment by legislation. In particular, what is the punishment for holding someone in slavery? The amendment, in Section 2, leaves that to Congress to decide. And they have. And the fact that they have means it's illegal, even if were were not otherwise.

  • The enforcement power doesn't extent to involuntary servitude authorized by state law as punishment for a crime because the 13th Amendment doesn't prohibit it.
    – ohwilleke
    Feb 9 at 19:23
  • This answer is incorrect to say that the fact of congress imposing a punishment for holding someone in slavery makes slavery illegal, because the 13th amendment makes slavery illegal even in the absence of such penalties. Without such penalties, for example, a court would not be able to impose criminal punishment on someone holding slaves, but it would be able to issue orders to bring about the end of the person's enslavement.
    – phoog
    Feb 9 at 21:34

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