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Columnist: Voting 'yes' on the measure would begin to correct historic inequities observed by Willamette students.

Oregon is one of 10 states that legally allows slavery and involuntary servitude as a punishment for a crime. Currently, Oregon and four other states are voting to decide whether incarcerated individuals can reclaim the humanity that has been stripped from them. Measure 112 needs your support to remove the degrading terminology in Oregon's constitution and amend it to include language that would provide alternatives to incarceration for convicted individuals.

The measure came about through a process similar to the "groundings" about which Pan-African thinker Walter Rodney theorized. Rodney's groundings reconstructed how learning happens outside the classroom. Prisoners, students of Willamette University, and Oregonians Against Slavery and Involuntary Servitude (a grassroots organization) created a coalition to share knowledge. Willamette students went directly to the Oregon State Penitentiary and sat with prisoners to include them in the discourse that needed their voices and asked them what they wanted. They likely did not go into it with the intention of following Rodney's process, but students ended up relating to the prisoners on a human level. The carceral system is nearly a $300 billion industry that gives them little to no pay for labor which is dangerous and arduous. They are the firefighters that were at the forefront of the wildfires and the labor used by corporations and institutions like Willamette University, which fills dorms with dressers made by prison inmates.

As a Willamette student, it was difficult to learn about how my university was a part of the problem, and has made me realize that it is important to hold institutions accountable.

Beyond that, the prisoners' free labor impacts many industries and yet they are treated and provided with little human dignity. The incarceration system is viewed and excused as a civilizing force for offenders when in actuality it exploits them for their free/cheap labor.

This is the same excuse that was used to support chattel slavery and colonialism. The 13th Amendment allowed for slavery as a punishment for crime and created an economy directly after the Civil War ended. Now we see it heightened to a level beyond what the system can sustain.

People might see it as a proactive approach to combating crime, especially if they view it from a political standpoint instead of from a humanitarian lens. When COVID hit, many prisons were impacted heavily but the prisoners had to fight just to get masks and vaccines because they were not seen as a priority by the government. Prisoners experience the exacerbation of their mental health issues because they receive abhorrent treatment and conditions.

It is difficult to view the incarceration system as helpful because 75% of the time, prisoners in America return back to prison within five years of release. Since the prisoners are the ones experiencing the injustice of the incarceration system, their request to change the writing of the constitution should be enough for us to make the change.

Measure 112 would bring about a message to incarcerated individuals that the carceral system has swallowed up. It would show them that they are no different from the rest of us and deserve the same human rights. Oregonians need to put words into action and exercise their right to vote to help take the first steps in fighting against fundamental flaws in our important message.

Mareshet Pulliam is a student at Willamette University in Salem.


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