There should be no exception to the promise

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Slavery was supposed to have ended with the end of the Civil War and the creation and ratification of the 13th Amendment in 1865. It was supposed to enshrine a promise that this great nation would no longer put someone in chains and hold them in captivity. However, beneath its seemingly liberatory surface lies a dangerous distortion of that promise which allows for the continuation of slavery into present day at both the federal and state level. 

Many of Michigan’s citizens are not aware that slavery and involuntary servitude still exist in our state, but it’s true. Article 1, subsection 9 of the Michigan Constitution clearly states “Neither slavery, nor involuntary servitude unless for the punishment of crime, shall ever be tolerated in this state 

Maybe you’re thinking those are just words on a really old document and not actually a practice we uphold on an everyday basis. Or maybe you’re even thinking, “hey, they did the crime so now they have to face the consequences!” But this kind of denial, of both reality and our shared humanity, is where to continue to uphold such practices puts all of our liberty at peril. And, I truly believe that though as individuals with varied life experiences, we may not agree on all things, I know in my heart my fellow Michiganders don’t want to continue to be a slave state, don’t want to base our own freedom upon the dehumanization of others, don’t want to be complicit in perpetuating a system based upon violence.

There are approximately 32,186 people currently incarcerated in the state of Michigan, and make no mistake, they are not serving their time in luxury. Rather, far from it, cast to the fringes of society, they are more often than not being abused, traumatized, and living real life nightmares. Many times, incarcerated people are being served spoiled food sometimes filled with maggots, feces, or other dangerous materials. There are prisoners being raped by those who are paid by the state to watch over them, inmates facing extreme racially motivated violence and some dying due to dismissive and inhumane institutionally sanctioned policies and practices. 

In addition to these abuses, as prisons across the country have increasingly become privatized for-profit institutions, the rampant exploitation of prisoners has only gotten worse over time. The list of corporations which earn millions off exploiting prisoner forced labor is exhaustive and documentation of the financial incentives to incarceration that come along with forced labor is comprehensive. Given that the U.S. has the highest incarceration rates in the world, for both juveniles and adults, this understanding should make all of us extremely uncomfortable as it shouldn’t be hard to understand why it is extremely dangerous to base our economic production on a model that literally needs to lock people up and force them to work essentially without wages in order to keep production and consumer prices low. 

Personally, I experienced all this firsthand, because I’m a victim of wrongful conviction. I spent nearly 10 years enslaved to the state of Michigan. During that time, I fought for my life and freedom, witnessed and suffered atrocities first-hand. Now that I’m a free man, I have decided to use whatever resources I can to act as an advocate for all those who are unable to do so, in order to work towards the full restoration of basic human rights and the enfranchisement of the justice impacted. 

Incarceration is often marketed as a mechanism to rehabilitate someone so they can be a productive citizen, however, what passes for rehabilitation, is often sorely lacking, hard to come by, or non-existent depending upon the particular prison where one ends up serving their time. For example, educational attainment has been shown to reduce a person’s barriers to successfully re-entering their community and provides greater outcomes within prison settings. However, these opportunities vary, can be prohibitively expensive, or are legally out of reach based upon a person’s sentence.    In addition, reform is often impossible as many times prison staff will retaliate against inmates for filing complaints. If you see something you’re supposed to say something–except in prison. Standing up for yourself or others could mean forced labor, the risk of losing the few hours of fresh air you may be allowed, solitary confinement in 5×8 cells for months or years, or more prison time added to your sentence. How is that rehabilitation?  

The current culture of prison in the U.S. is actively designed to exacerbate many of the reasons people end up there in the first place. So many human beings go into the system suffering from some form of mental illness, be it from drug abuse, childhood trauma, physical, emotional, or sexual abuse, the effects of abject poverty, or a combination of all of the above. If surveyed you will find that the majority of currently incarcerated people have been severely abused or witnessed horrific violence from a young age. 

Subjecting someone who is already traumatized and unhealed can exacerbate their diagnosed or undiagnosed PTSD. Once they are released from prison it can be extremely difficult to acclimate themselves into the outside world. It can be compared to being dropped off in another country where you don’t know the language, the land, or the customs but you’re expected to figure it out with little to no help. For many it’s too frightening and they end up back in the hell they wanted to escape. We generally refer to this as recidivism but these days, as we learn more about the root causes and symptoms of incarceration it’s being referred to more as Post Incarceration Syndrome (PICS). 

Renaming the behavior to focus upon the systemic genesis of these issues, changes the narrative which says that some people can’t be saved and are just always going to be career criminals. Instead, if focuses on the research and rality which shows that what they may actually be is an impoverished abused child–turned offender–turned abused by the state-enslaved adult. Everyone needs to be held accountable for their wrongdoings, this also includes the state. 

In my childhood and formative years I saw many things no one should ever have to witness. My life was hard and I know I probably had PTSD from the trauma I suffered before entering the system. However, nearly 10 years inside a prison cell caused my mental health to deteriorate. Today I have PICS, and I continue to suffer what I call  “death by a million paper cuts”. Having a criminal record closes many doors of opportunity to become whole again, disqualifies me from being paid what I deserve and from qualifying for student aid to continue my education. And, I’ve said nothing of the physical pain I suffer due to the brutality by police officers I’ve faced. The broken bones have healed but the residual pain lingers and wakes me in the night. These truths, however, do not deter me from my mission. They actually make me more firm in my resolve to see to it that one day no one else will have to go through what I have. It is why I founded the organization Change Up, and why I fight to get legislation passed across the country to END THE EXCEPTION to slavery in prisons.

What Change Up is attempting to do, not just here but in 8 other states across the country is advocate for empathy and a radical change in how we rehabilitate and help our fellow human beings become productive citizens who can be held accountable for their actions without being exploited, abused or killed. This cycle will not end until there is nothing to gain financially from another person’s life being destroyed. We at the Change Up will not rest until any and all financial incentives to incarcerate are discontinued and erased from American economics. We will begin our work with the precedent that created this monster in the first place, the constitutional exception clause of criminality.

 Either Michigan is “pro-slavery” and chooses to leave the constitution and the practices it’s been tolerating in place or we are “anti-slavery” and we fix our community by recognizing the humanity in each of us.

Join us by telling your elected officials that WE, THE PEOPLE want to amend Article 1, Subsection 9 of the Michigan Constitution to abolish Slavery and involuntary servitude in its entirety. 

We affirm that prisoners deserve:

  • Mental health evaluation and treatment for PTSD.
  • Transparency for prison staff accountability. 
  • OLSHA worker protections.
  • Minimum wage. 
  • Social security points/benefits. 
  • No more punishment for refusing to take prison jobs.
  • The right to vote. 


And that returning people deserve:


  • Freedom from the stigma of criminal records 
  • Mental health counseling with a focus on Post Incarceration Syndrome.
  • The right to live with dignity. 


To learn more about Change UP, get involved and help us help prisoners earn back their human rights, contact Marcus M. Kelley


CheckoutRiverwise’s podcast with Marcus!