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Minnesota Constitution’s slavery clause sparks renewed outrage

Woman speaking into a microphone
Barbara Currin, a formerly incarcerated woman, speaks against inhumane working conditions in Minnesota prisons. (Photo courtesy of the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee)

Minnesotans are demanding a change to a clause in the state's constitution that allows slave labor in prisons.

Minnesota’s 1857 bill of rights bans slavery except as a form of punishment for a crime. A bill was presented at the last legislative session to change the language, but it never reached the governor’s desk.

Barbara Currin, who was incarcerated in the Shakopee prison from 2014 to 2020, said she was coerced to work to care for her children and grandchildren. She was in prison before the state allowed free phone calls in prison, so she had to work to even speak to them.

“So you have to call them to send you money … but now you got to put more financial burden on them,” Currin said. “Because, you know, you need some money to be put on your phone, so I can reach out to I can talk to my kids, you know, in my grandkids, so I can check up on things … I was calling the schools, having teacher conference meetings, you know, for my grandkids. You know, so how did that look? It was just awful.”

While she was incarcerated, Currin says she didn’t feel she could protest the conditions she lived in, because doing so might threaten her one small source of income. She said every cent she made while in prison went toward paying to talk to her family. Currin worked 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. every weekday, but she said her checks rarely amounted to more than $20.

“The goal is … to reform the person, so they can be returned in a positive way. [But] there is no reform, at least for me, or the people and the people that I know that I even talked to now that I was in there with, they all say the same thing. ‘You just have to have something to fight for, because they will break you in every which way,’ and that constitution [clause], that slave labor, is one of them,” said Currin.

Currin joined forces with the Twin Cities Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee on Friday at the Capitol to demand an end to these conditions in Minnesota prisons. David Boehnke, a member of that committee, said that the state is unjustifiably making people suffer for the sake of profits.

“I mean, being incarcerated is not just punishing the person in prison. It's punishing the families. And it's, it's not just destabilizing the mental health… of someone in prison. It's destabilizing whole communities,” Boehnke said. “The whole thing is a tragedy, but it's all designed, you know, what I mean? So, it's, it's by design, and we need to change the structure, to do something different.”

Seven states have banned slavery entirely from their constitutions, and the Twin Cities Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee wants Minnesota to be the eighth. The bill to ban slavery went through two House of Representative Committees last legislative session, but stalled in the Senate. Boehnke hopes the bill can reach the finish line in the next legislative session and make it to a public vote on the 2024 ballot.

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