Democrats rally support to end prison ‘slavery’
Dianne Hart. Image via Colin Hackley.

Dianne Hart
Rep. Dianne Hart also defended her endorsement of 'Chain Gang Charlie' Crist.

Democrats in the House and Senate are hoping to gain Republicans’ support for a proposal to prevent prisoners from working without pay.

For a second year in a row, Tampa Rep. Dianne Hart is backing the measure (SJR 392/HJR 39) to add protections against slavery and involuntary servitude to the Florida Constitution. But unlike last year, she started campaigning for it early with some Republican House members and has a Senate sponsor in West Palm Beach Democratic Sen. Bobby Powell.

“I’m not asking for people not to work. What I am saying is don’t work me for free,” Hart said she told her Republican colleagues.

Hart has already discussed the measure with a couple of Republican colleagues and was scheduled on Wednesday to discuss it with Rep. Chuck Brannan, the Macclenny Republican who chairs the House Criminal Justice & Public Safety Subcommittee.

“They believe, like I do, that if people are getting paid we’ll have a lot less issues on our compounds where people are selling their cigarettes, all the illegal stuff, to try to make a little bit of money to be able to keep their own canteen,” Hart told Florida Politics.

In the five years leading up to 2019, 2,500 inmates were assigned to community work squads and another 1,000 inmates worked Department of Transportation jobs, totaling 17.7 million hours. Since July 2014, the Department of Corrections has made $36 million in contracts with 100 state agencies, municipalities and counties.

“Some will say that there really isn’t a profit in prison, but we work with these individuals, who are continuing to labor, (who) would say otherwise,” Powell told reporters Wednesday. “The purpose of prison and rehabilitation and satisfying their societal debt would be to correct people. But this does, indeed, the opposite.”

Forcing convicts into unpaid labor takes away opportunities for them to earn money or build job skills for when they leave prison, she said.

“Often, the little money that these inmates, that our loved ones, earns goes back to helping their families or towards their canteen so that they can communicate with family,” Hart said.

Hart and those supporting the measure liken forcing prisoners to work without pay to slavery. The 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution bans slavery and involuntary servitude, except as punishment for convicts. Florida’s constitution doesn’t mention slavery or involuntary servitude.

“The fact that we are even having this conversation I think is a blight on our state, a blemish on our state,” said House Democratic Policy Chair Fentrice Driskell.

If the Legislature approves it and 60% of voters agree, the new section of the constitution would read, “Prohibition on slavery and Involuntary servitude — No person shall be held in slavery or involuntary servitude in the state, including as a penalty or punishment for a crime.”

The Rev. Kenneth Sharpton Glasgow, a voting rights activist and half brother of the Rev. Al Sharpton, is teaming up with The Ordinary People group, which brought Hart the legislation. The organization has helped pass similar measures in Utah and Oregon, and measures are on the ballot in eight states in 2022. However, they haven’t had luck getting any movement in Southern states, except in Florida, Glasgow said.

“This is the first time that I’ve seen lawmakers put themselves on the line in a long time, since the Civil Rights Movement,” he added.

Republican legislative leadership in the last year hasn’t been as warm to criminal justice reform as it had in the immediate years before. One measure that did pass last Session would have broadened youths’ abilities to expunge their arrest records, but Gov. Ron DeSantis vetoed it, fearing it would lead to expunging serious felonies. Gainesville Republican Sen. Keith Perry has refiled that measure (SB 342), this time removing forcible felonies from the list.

Hart has been touted as a champion for criminal justice reform. Other measures she has already filed ahead of the 2022 Legislative Session would establish parole eligibility guidelines (HB 169) and adopt rehabilitation as a primary purpose of sentencing (HB 171).

In July, Hart endorsed St. Petersburg Democratic U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist for Governor.

Crist previously served one term as Governor after being elected as a Republican in 2006. During his time in the Legislature in the ’90s, he earned the moniker “Chain Gang Charlie” for sponsoring legislation that approved chained prison work crews.

Now in his second gubernatorial run as a Democrat, Crist last week rolled out a criminal justice reform platform including restoring voting rights and cutting down gun on violence. He also vowed to legalize cannabis and expunge cannabis convictions.

Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, another Democratic gubernatorial candidate, deemed Crist responsible for several criminal justice laws that need reforming in Florida. However, Hart said she is having detailed conversations with him on her concerns regarding criminal justice reform and prison reform.

“Yes, absolutely I do believe he has had a change of heart,” she said.

Renzo Downey

Renzo Downey covers state government for Florida Politics. After graduating from Northwestern University in 2019, Renzo began his reporting career in the Lone Star State, covering state government for the Austin American-Statesman. Shoot Renzo an email at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @RenzoDowney.



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