Sep 1, 2022

End The Exception: The Fight to End Slavery Once and For All

by: Chad Eric Smith

“The carceral state this nation has built demands gradual and sudden acceptance of pain and otherization.”

Those are the words of multi-disciplinary artist and Mural Arts Guild Coordinator Akeil Robertson, who wrote and published an essay in The Philadelphia Inquirer about “how solitary confinement changes people,” including how it changed himself. 

The carceral state, the pain, and the otherization Robertson wrote about are intentionally systematic. It’s part of America’s heritage, and its roots can be found in the United States Constitution. 

While the Constitution promises its people liberty and justice and offers the mechanisms for the country to be perfected over time, a canyon-sized gap exists between the promise of our ideals and the reality of our time.

The 13th Amendment to the Constitution, passed by Congress on January 31, 1865, and ratified on December 6, 1865, abolished slavery in the United States. 

Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.

- Section 1 of the 13th Amendment of the US Constitution

However, that exception has essentially allowed for slavery to exist for the last 157 years under a new name: Prison

As a result, those incarcerated in many states across the country are still subject to involuntary servitude. Since Black Americans are disproportionately criminalized, slavery persists in the United States, with the descendants of its original victims sharing a fate similar to their ancestors. 

A growing movement of people and organizations is dedicated to ending this exception. End The Exception engages people in learning about the 13th Amendment while inviting folks to add their voices to the chorus demanding change. Alongside a coalition of advocates from the End the Exception campaign, Mural Arts Philadelphia has brought together a group of formerly incarcerated artists, facilitated by artist and project manager Phoebe Bachman, that elevates awareness of the Abolition Amendment on addressing mass incarceration. The project’s core consists of working with artists who are currently or formerly incarcerated to create artworks about the labor they’ve performed during imprisonment. Mural Arts worked with Justice Arts Coalition to commission currently incarcerated artists to create drawings, collages, paintings, and written or recorded descriptions of their labor. Artists were compensated for the right to exhibit their original contributions.


  • 12 hr © 2022, City of Philadelphia Mural Arts Program / Jeremiah Murphy. Photo by Akeil Robertson. Courtesy of Mural Arts.

  • Americas Blood Diamonds © 2022, City of Philadelphia Mural Arts Program / Messiah Green. Photo by Akeil Robertson. Courtesy of Mural Arts.

  • The Dynamics Have Changed But The Results Are The Same © 2022, City of Philadelphia Mural Arts Program / Charles Finney. Photo by Akeil Robertson. Courtesy of Mural Arts.

  • Untitled © 2022, City of Philadelphia Mural Arts Program / Cedar A Mortensen. Photo by Akeil Robertson. Courtesy of Mural Arts.

  • Livin’ The Dream © 2022, City of Philadelphia Mural Arts Program / Cuong Tran/Mike. Photo by Akeil Robertson. Courtesy of Mural Arts.

Akeil Robertson and Phoebe Bachman.

In the second phase, Robertson and Bachman hosted a series of teach-ins about the 13th Amendment in Florida, Louisiana, California, and Pennsylvania. During these teach-ins, they collected additional input from those impacted by state violence, weaving in their narratives of how the exception in the 13th amendment has impacted not only those inside but their families and entire communities. Participants walked away with hand-created t-shirts and bags advocating for change.


  • Philadelphia artist Akeil Robertson-Jowers painted "US#1" while incarcerated. He created the piece in collaboration with other incarcerated men. [Featured in The Philadelphia Inquirer]

  • End the Exception in-process, 2022. Photo by Akeil Robertson.

  • End the Exception in-process, 2022. Photo by Akeil Robertson.

  • End the Exception in-process, 2022. Photo by Akeil Robertson.

  • End the Exception in-process, 2022. Photo by Akeil Robertson.

  • End the Exception in-process, 2022. Photo by Phoebe Bachman.

The project’s third phase centers on an impactful public art installation at the People’s Plaza at Independence Historic National Park. The exhibition will open on Friday, September 9, 2022, from 5:00 PM to 6:30 PM. Those interested may RSVP to the free event on Eventbrite.

Within the exhibition, the effect of the exception clause is narrated through drawings, paintings, and collages by artists who are currently incarcerated. Alongside these individual perspectives is a diagrammatic mural outlining the more extensive prison labor system. Visitors can listen to audio recordings played through prison phone booths. The recordings stitch together a narrative of economic punishment that affects not just the incarcerated individuals but their families and communities. Several public programs that elaborate on the core themes are scheduled throughout the exhibition, which ends on September 18.

On September 16, from 6 – 7 pm, in partnership with the African American Museum in Philadelphia, Mural Arts will host a special screening of Angola Do You Hear Us? Voices from a Plantation Prison at the Independence Visitor Center. Directed by Cinque Northern, the film tells the story of playwright Liza Jessie Peterson whose acclaimed play “The Peculiar Patriot” was shut down mid-performance at the Louisiana State Penitentiary, commonly known as Angola Prison. The film examines how one woman’s play challenged the country’s largest plantation prison and impacted incarcerated men long after the institution’s administration erased the record of her visit. The screening will be followed by a Q&A and an opportunity to view the exhibition. RSVP for the free screening on Evenbrite.

Playwright Liza Jessie Peterson at Louisiana State Penitentiary. Photo courtesy of Tribeca Films.

On Saturday, September 17, from 11 am–2 pm, as part of Constitution Day, there will be a day full of activities that educate and advocate for the Abolition Amendment. State and local legislators, activists, and formerly incarcerated artists will join a roundtable on End the Exception, and speakers will speak to slavery’s continued legality under the Constitution. The public can participate in art-making stations with End the Exception stencils and work on a collaborative mural. The event will feature “Except for Me,” an installation by the End the Exception Coalition led by Worth Rises with production from EP & Co. RSVP on Eventbrite.

End the Exception is Funded by Art for Justice and produced with partners Councilmember Kendra Brooks Office, Worth Rises, Justice Arts Coalition, The Walls Project, Latino Justice, The Art of Healing and Justice Network, and California Lawyers for the Arts.

Last updated: Sep 4, 2022

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