The 13th Amendment –
Prison Slavery and Mass Incarceration


Since the publication of Michelle Alexander’s excellent The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, the issue of prison and parole reform has been raised as far as Obama’s White House. In the national debate ensuing from Michelle Alexander’s book, some have not given credit to Angela Davis forging national interest in prison abolition with her organizing Critical Resistance campaigns across the country. With the nominal success of the Pelican Bay prisoners’ hunger strike in California, we recognize that when we organize a national determination, we can collectively force institutional change.

With the advent of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement, there is a new generation of activists who have included a challenge to mass incarceration as part of their national debate and agenda for institutional change. However, it is extremely important that BLM and other prison/parole reform advocates have a profound historical foundation in their understanding of the prison industrial complex. In my recent book, Escaping the Prism: Fade to Black, I included an essay, “The 13th Amendment – Prison Slavery and Mass Incarceration,” hoping to offer more insight on how to formulate talking points to persuade others, particularly faith-based communities, to join and advocate for change.

This struggle is not new to me, in fact, my frustration is that it is often necessary to repeat and reiterate the need for a national determination that actually challenges the very foundation of the institution of prison slavery. In this regard, I am offering a legal argument that two other former prisoners and I prepared and fought in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York (up to the U.S. Supreme Court and including petitioning the United Nations), stating the “exception clause” in the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution is in violation of international law and U.S. treaties with the United Nations and the international community.

On November 19, 1979, I and two other former prisoners filed a civil rights complaint in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York alleging that the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution is in violation of international law and general principles of human rights. The complaint was docketed as 79 CIV 6228 and sent to federal Judge Pierce for consideration. Copies of the complaint were sent to various legal groups and organizations such as the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, American Civil Liberties Union, etc., in an effort to win their support for the petition.

Unfortunately, they declined to respond to our overtures to support this case by providing legal representation. As novice Pro Se litigants, we pursued the complaint to the best of our abilities, ultimately being denied certiorari by the U.S. Supreme Court. We then sought to win the attention of the United Nations subcommittees, to no avail.

It was obvious to us then, as it should be to activists today, that without a serious national organizational determination it was improbable for us to win. However, we were adherent to the principle of Frederick Douglass that “power concedes nothing without a demand, it never has and it never will,” and our audacious attitude was what we needed to challenge the system of prison slavery, no matter how implausible the possibility of success.

In 2016, it is believed that the potential exists to build the kind of national and international campaign to demand the 13th Amendment be amended to excise and omit the clause that permits involuntary servitude and slavery of prisoners. Therefore, I am posting the Memorandum of Law that we prepared in 1979, as I believe it provides today’s activists and advocates of prison/parole reform both a historical and legal foundation to build a substantial movement to once and for all end all forms of involuntary servitude and slavery in the United States.

It is my sincere hope this document will be widely read and studied, especially by law students, professors and legal groups involved and associated with prison/parole reform advocacy. My aspiration is to offer the overall movement broader talking points to persuade and evolve an informed national campaign capable of organizing a durable prison slavery abolition movement. Certainly, the Black Lives Matter movement, Critical Resistance, Jericho Amnesty Movement, etc., can achieve more in the educational agit-propaganda determinations with this information as part of their pamphlets, brochures and other outreach materials, including social media posting.

I firmly believe there cannot be any significant discussion about prison/parole reform absent a challenge to the very foundation of the prison slave system. The economic and racial implications of prison involuntary servitude and slavery are based on the historical reality of African chattel slavery. Who can deny that the slavery abolition battles that resulted in the Emancipation Proclamation and the 13th Amendment were incomplete and are unfinished business?

Remember: We Are Our Own Liberators!

Respectfully submitted,
Jalil A. Muntaqim
Apartheid Attica – 1/25/16

To download the Memorandum of Law, click here!