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Proposed involuntary servitude amendment in N.H. faces criticism over potential impact on prison labor

The concern is that the change to the New Hampshire Constitution could prevent correctional officers from assigning work to people who are serving time

Cheshire County Department of Corrections

Cheshire County Department of Corrections

By Rick Green
The Keene Sentinel, N.H.

KEENE, N.H. — A proposed constitutional amendment prohibiting slavery and involuntary servitude in New Hampshire would have some serious negative effects as now written, Cheshire County Department of Corrections Superintendent Doug Iosue told an N.H. Senate committee last week.

At issue is the wording of CACR 13, which passed the House, 366-5, on Feb. 1.

Some corrections superintendents object to the lack of an exclusion for those who are being punished after being convicted of a crime. The Civil War-era 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which abolished slavery, has such an exclusion.

Iosue, who also practiced as a social worker for 35 years, gave testimony before the Senate Executive Departments and Administration Committee last Wednesday on behalf of the corrections affiliate of the N.H. Association of Counties.

The concern is that the change to the state Constitution could prevent correctional officers from assigning work to people who are serving time.

“A number of studies have shown employed inmates have fewer disciplinary infractions and do get better employment once released,” Iosue said. “Most of the jobs in the DOCs provide an opportunity for positive interaction with civilian kitchen, laundry and facility workers.

“These interactions are helpful and provide opportunities for growth and a chance to learn a valuable trade.”

The general alternative to assigned work would not be productive, he said.

“Hour after hour of TV, basketball, cards and gambling or weightlifting are not rehabilitation.”

Work requirements can also be used as a punishment for disciplinary infractions, or as a motivation for positive change.

“We have many tools in our correctional toolbox,” Iosue said. “The ability to require work for some offenders that might not otherwise choose it is one of those tools. I ask you to please not take away this tool.”

Gilles Bissonnette, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of New Hampshire, said his organization supports the legislation as written. If inmates don’t want to work, they shouldn’t be forced, he said.

“One may not want to call that involuntary servitude, but I do think it fits that definition. At its core, it dismisses the human dignity of those individuals who are incarcerated.”

He also said many people who are incarcerated want to work in any case and don’t need to be forced.

Incarcerated workers earn much less than workers who are not incarcerated.

A 2017 report of the nonprofit Prison Policy Initiative found that incarcerated workers in New Hampshire earned from 25 cents to $1.50 per hour.

In 2022, the ACLU published a report, “Captive Labor: Exploitation of Incarcerated Workers .”

A majority of incarcerated workers said they weren’t paid enough to afford basic necessities, were concerned about their safety while working, received no formal job training and were forced to work or face additional punishment, according to surveys in the report.

Democratic State Rep. Jonah Wheeler of Peterborough also spoke in favor of CACR 13.

“For me, this legislation is about making the statement that we don’t support slavery because, despite the fact that this government is good, we are all mortals, and the only thing that is immortal is statute. I think that bringing this question to the ballot would be worthwhile.”

Proposed constitutional amendments need support by a three-fifths majority in both chambers in order to be placed before voters on a statewide ballot in November, where a two-thirds majority is required for passage.

Sen. Sharon Carson, R- R-Londonderry, questioned Wheeler about the importance of putting this amendment into the state Constitution, noting that the U.S. Constitution has the ultimate authority on the issue of slavery.

Wheeler responded that state lawmakers are more accessible to the public than members of Congress, and federal action might be more likely if more states take a stand.

“Congress is in gridlock and isn’t working for the American people right now,” he said. “I think it’s important that our constitution says slavery is wrong and we don’t support it.”

Eight states, including Vermont, have added language to their constitutions outlawing slavery and involuntary servitude without exception, according to the Abolish Slavery National Network.

The Senate Executive Departments and Administration Committee will eventually schedule a vote on whether to recommend CACR 13 and then it will be considered by the full Senate.


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