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Did the 13th Amendment end slavery?

By Amelia Alexander

Alexander is an Ada High School student and a regular columnist for the Bluffton Icon.

I have been learning many things in school that have inspired me to write about them. In government, we are memorizing the amendments. Even the early amendments to the U.S. Constitution that trace back to the 1800s are still extremely relevant. I wanted to write about the 13th Amendment because it pertains to things that the media does not always cover.


What is the 13th Amendment?

Basically, the 13th Amendment ended slavery, or involuntary servitude, with the exception of punishment for a crime. This means that prisoners can work for practically no pay, even today. This practice doesn’t seem that unfair until you examine how it actually works.


How did this affect American society when the amendment took effect?

The 13th Amendment was ratified in 1865. The Civil War had just ended. The 13th amendment should have made life easier for African Americans; however, in some ways the 13th Amendment arguably made life much worse for African Americans, especially in the South. 

Southerners were used to having slaves; they were a major component of the economy for the region, so the South found a loophole in the amendment. They created laws that they knew African Americans would fail to follow. Vagrancy, or not being able to prove that you are employed, was a crime during that time. Being able to prove that you were employed required documents, which African Americans usually didn’t have, so even African Americans that had jobs were susceptible to being arrested for vagrancy. There were other laws like this, such as walking by railroad tracks after dark. Many of the people arrested at the time were arrested for nonviolent crimes and many of them didn’t even do anything that white society would actually consider wrong if done by whites. These were the kind of crimes that only black people were arrested for. Of course there were actually criminals arrested as well, but according to the documentary film Slavery by Another Name (PBS, 2012), there were many instances of black people being arrested for a crime and convicted with little evidence by an all white jury. These laws were strategically enforced to convict many African Americans, so they could be used for free labor.

This was happening because the end of slavery opened a new market: convict leasing. States could lease prisoners to people who needed free labor. Because the majority of these prisoners were innocent by today’s standards, this is argued to be another form of slavery. The conditions these convicts endured were as bad as it gets. The conditions were worse than slavery because the people in charge of them didn’t care if some of their prisoners died. Slave owners had to make sure that their slaves lived and were healthy enough to work for them. They paid more money for their slaves and they would not want to keep buying new slaves. Convicts however, were much more expendable, so they treated them inhumanely. The death rate was up to 30% a year. Many of the convicts worked in coal mines with basically no safety measures, and all of this was completely legal. 


What did this mean for society at the time?

The convict leasing system arguably had a big impact on public opinion of African Americans. In the 1800s, during slavery, African Americans were seen as subordiant by basically everyone. However, southerners probably would have described them as hardworking and loyal, but as convict leasing took effect, public opinion of African Americans changed, according to Slavery by Another Name.  Despite the fact that their crimes were mostly of no import, people labeled them as criminals because of how African Americans were overrepresented in jails. It was easy to say that they were more likely to commit crimes and then point to statistics that they were more likely than white people to be in jail. However, laws were created to target blacks and they were policed differently. Southerners wanted their free labor. Their economy depended on it and it made many southern whites uncomfortable that African Americans were now free. People who did not take this into account drew the conclusion that because of their race black people were dangerous and more likely to commit crimes. This contributed to racism and fear of black people. 


How does this pertain to modern society?

Convict leasing was made illegal in 1928 but the loophole in the 13th Amendment still exists to this day. Imprisoning people has become a source of revenue, which may be an ethical concern. The United States has 25% of the world’s prisoners and only 5% of the world’s population. It is a serious problem. Taxpayers in America spend around 81 billion dollars a year on mass incarceration, and private prisons benefit from our tax dollars. 


How do people profit from mass incarceration?

Private prisons benefit from having more prisoners. They can charge the government more than it actually costs to take care of the prisoners as long as that amount is still lower than what it would cost for that prison to be public. It seems like a win-win, but when you delve into how these prisons work, it is clear that it is inhumane. 

The for-profit model encourages private prisons to incarcerate more individuals, give people longer sentences, hire the lowest number of guards as possible and lower their salaries. It can be argued that private prisons do not give prisoners the resources they need. 

According to, 37% of people in federal and state prisons have been diagnosed with a mental illness. The World Health Organization (WHO) wrote an article called “Mental Health and Prisons.” The organization claims that many people with mental illness go untreated because current mental health resources are ineffective. WHO describes the current resources, “because they are very expensive to run, they have a limited capacity, are associated with low release rates, and they often leave the individual with a severe and persistent stigma. Many operate outside of the health departments responsible for controlling the quality of health interventions. Furthermore, there is no evidence that these expensive hospitals improve treatment outcomes. Rather, these hospitals can put prisoners at risk of human rights violations”.

Because private prisons make more money the more prisoners they have, there are high rates of recidivism (going back to jail after being released), overcrowded prisons, unsafe conditions, and mass incarceration, which costs taxpayers money.

Investors invest in these prisons and many corporations use private prisons for extremely cheap labor. They can be paid less than a dollar an hour. They don’t have vacation days and they don’t have health benefits, so mass incarceration benefits these corporations immensely. In fact, rich investors will give money to fund politicians for them to push tough-on-crime policies so that mass incarceration continues. 


Does this problem have anything to do with race in modern society? 

About 39% of white Americans who were surveyed argue that blacks are not treated less fairly in the justice system than whites (“Whites and blacks differ widely in views of how blacks are treated,” Pew Research Center,  2019), but some people see inequality in the current justice system. Things are significantly better today compared to the convict leasing system, but some of the same problems are still occurring. For instance, black people are still overrepresented in jail. This has led people to make claims that black people are more likely to be criminals, but sometimes, black people are just policed differently than white people. Black people are 3.73 times more likely to be arrested for marijuna, even though black people and white people tend to use the drug at the same rate, according to the American Civil Liberties Union ( No race or ethnicity should be disproportionately targeted for having weed. I would love to write about drugs and how the government deals with them in further depth in a future article.  


In conclusion

The 13th Amendment has a loophole in which people can be used for free, involuntary servitude. Long ago, this created the convict leasing system. In modern America, this enables corporations to benefit from mass incarceration. What society views as “criminal behavior” can be somewhat arbitrary, even today. Some people disagree on which laws should be criminalized, like drug laws. The war on drugs was a huge component that sparked mass incarceration, as well as the creation of private prisons. Many people think that the justice system is exploiting taxpayers and prisoners, and this can be traced all the way back to the 13th Amendment, when imprisoning people became motivation for economic gain. Therefore, there is debate about whether or not the 13th Amendment truly ended slavery. 


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