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New student coalition advocates for the incarcerated, introduces legislation

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From left: Jordan Schott ’21, Riley Burton ’20, Anna McPherson ’23, John Hochstetler ’20
From left: Jordan Schott ’21, Riley Burton ’20, Anna McPherson ’23, John Hochstetler ’20

The idea that slavery and involuntary servitude is legal in Oregon may not seem believable, but it’s embedded in the state constitution. 

Article I, Section 34 states neither slavery nor involuntary servitude shall exist in the state, except as a punishment for crime when a party has been duly convicted — language that’s nearly identical to that of the 13th Amendment in the U.S. Constitution. 

Shortly after some Willamette University students discovered this fact in 2019, their passion to remove the language of slavery from the Constitution led them to introduce a bill in that year’s legislative session and create a volunteer coalition — Oregonians Against Slavery and Involuntary Servitude (OASIS) — that introduced a similar bill this year, SJR 10. The bill had its first hearing Feb. 24 and gained support from U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley. 

If Oregon agrees to abolish the language, it would join four states — Rhode Island, Colorado, Utah and Nebraska — that have already done so. Twenty-four other states either plan to or are currently in the process of doing the same, according to testimony. 

A second legislative hearing will be held Wednesday. If all goes as planned, the public will vote on the measure Nov. 22, 2022. 

A start with restorative justice

OASIS officially formed just months ago with the goal of centering the voices of the incarcerated. 

Led by graduates Jordan Schott ’21, Yakirah Kates ’20, John Hochstetler ’20 and Riley Burton ’20, the coalition provides an opportunity for current students — especially those inspired by Professor of Politics Melissa Michaux’s restorative justice class — and others to support equal rights and dismantle racist policies. 

Schott, co-founder and director of legislative strategy, first noticed the language as an intern at the Oregon State Capitol and advocated for the 2019 bill, encouraged further after taking Michaux’s class. In her outreach she’s found that many people, even some legislators, don’t realize that slavery is still legal.   

“We talk about slavery as if it’s in the past, and it’s not,” she said. “That’s why a big part of everyone’s role at OASIS is education — we’re really trying to make sure that everyone knows this is a problem. If they don’t recognize it, they’re not going to put time and energy into fixing it.”

OASIS offers Anna McPherson ’23, an outreach coordinator who is also vice president of the Restorative Justice Coalition, an outlet to continue uplifting the voices of those who have been accused and convicted of crimes. 

“A crime shouldn’t be an end-all for a person’s life, or a reason to treat them with less kindness or appreciation than any other human being,” she said. 

Moving testimony

Support for OASIS and SJR 10 has been widespread and diverse, evident at its first hearing.  

Many organizations — including the ACLU of Oregon, the League of Women Voters of Oregon, and the Asian Pacific American Network of Oregon — and witnesses including Michaux, Willamette students and the young stepdaughter of an incarcerated individual provided written or spoken testimony on behalf of the bill.  

The hearing also included testimony for SJM 2, which was aimed at banning slavery in the 13th Amendment, and many spoke in favor of both.  

In a letter, Anthony Pickens, 38, stated he’s spent more time in prison than he has as a free person in society and wrote about a conversation he’d had with his stepdaughter, Jordynn Connor. The 11-year-old is now a member of OASIS and assists with its social media campaigns. 

Connor could not bear hearing the 13th Amendment and the state Constitution considers her stepfather a slave, he said. 

“Her words to me were, ‘Daddy, you’re a human being, not a slave,’” he said.  

Several lawmakers backed the bill. Merkley offered a bit of history in his testimony: following the Civil War, southern states seized on the slavery language and developed what became known as “black codes,” a series of provisions that allowed the arrest of any Black person at any time for any reason, such as speaking too loudly or not yielding the sidewalk, he said. 

Once Black people were arrested, they were “rented” for their labor, and this process became a major source of funding for state governments, setting the stage for Jim Crow laws, mass incarceration and efforts to take away the right to vote. 

The practice continues to this day in some states, and it’s absolutely time to right this historic wrong, he said. 

Schott, who testified at the hearing, views OASIS as the first step to making the lives of incarcerated individuals better. 

“We saw over the summer within the George Floyd protests that symbolism matters, and the symbols we use are super important,” she said. “Recognizing in the highest document of the land that we don’t condone slavery in the state is a huge step, but it’s certainly not the last one.” 

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