The Thirteenth Amendment: Modern Slavery, Capitalism, and Mass Incarceration

93 Pages Posted: 20 Aug 2019 Last revised: 27 Aug 2019

See all articles by Michele Goodwin

Michele Goodwin

University of California, Irvine School of Law

Date Written: August 19, 2019


The Article makes two conceptual contributions. First, it tells a story about the Thirteenth Amendment forbidding one form of slavery while legitimating and preserving others. Of course, the text does not operate absent important actors: legislatures and courts. Yet, as explained by Reva Siegel, despite "repeated condemnation of slavery," such united opposition to the practice "may instead function to exonerate practices contested in the present, none of which looks so unremittingly 'evil' by contrast." In this case, uncompensated prison labor inures economic benefits to the state and the companies capable of extracting it.

The Article argues that this preservation of the practice of slavery through its transformation into prison labor means only that socially, legislatively, and judicially, we have come to reject one form of discrimination: antebellum slavery, while distinguishing it from marginally remunerated and totally unremunerated prison labor, which courts legitimate. The Article tells the story of post-slavery convict leasing; fraud and debt peonage; as well as the heinous practices imposed on children through coercive apprenticeship laws throughout the American south. The Article then addresses modern slavery's transformations, including federal and state prison labor and the rise of private prisons. It concludes by offering pathways forward.

Suggested Citation

Goodwin, Michele, The Thirteenth Amendment: Modern Slavery, Capitalism, and Mass Incarceration (August 19, 2019). Cornell Law Review, Vol. 104, 2019, Forthcoming, UC Irvine School of Law Research Paper No. 2019-42, Available at SSRN:

Michele Goodwin (Contact Author)

University of California, Irvine School of Law ( email )

401 E. Peltason Dr.
Ste. 1000
Irvine, CA 92697-1000
United States

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