California lawmakers revive effort to ban involuntary servitude as punishment for crimes
Last year, voters in Vermont, Oregon, Tennessee and Alabama approved historic ballot measures that removed slavery and involuntary servitude as punishment for crime from their state constitutions, which could lead to limitations on forced prison labor. They joined a growing list of states that passed similar initiatives in recent years, including Nebraska, Utah and Colorado.
But in California, voters never got the chance.
Several months before the Nov. 8 election, lawmakers killed a proposal that would have asked voters to eliminate an exception in the state Constitution that allows for involuntary servitude for criminal punishment.
The emotional debate pitted arguments that compared prison labor to slavery against concerns that eliminating work requirements would undermine rehabilitation and jeopardize restitution payments to crime victims. Division between moderate Democrats and progressives, along with the price tag associated with the plan, eventually tanked the legislation.
But now Democrats are trying again, hoping that passage last year in other states could help sway more support in California. Assembly Constitutional Amendment 8 — known as the “End Slavery in California Act” — would “prohibit slavery in any form,” which includes “forced labor compelled by the use or threat of physical or legal coercion.”
California’s Constitution mirrors the 13th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which prohibits slavery, but allows for involuntary servitude as punishment for crime. Advocates pushing for the change, though, argue that involuntary servitude is just another word for slavery.
If passed by two-thirds of both houses of the Legislature, the proposed constitutional amendment would be placed on the November 2024 ballot for California voters to decide. At this point, it’s unclear if the proposal would be more of a symbolic change than meaningful reform to California’s prisons.
Assemblymember Lori D. Wilson (D-Suisun), who wrote the measure and leads the Legislature’s Black Caucus, said it’s important to first start with amending the state Constitution.
“There is no room for slavery in our Constitution,” Wilson said. “It is not consistent with our values, nor our humanity.”
The town of Susanville — where local officials say they face economic devastation if they lose more than 1,000 prison jobs — sued the state last year.
The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, or CDCR, requires most incarcerated people to work while in prison, where individuals are assigned jobs that range from construction work and dog training to computer coding and hospice care.
Around 7,000 people have work assignments through the California Prison Industry, a state business enterprise that employs incarcerated people and that sells its goods — including office furniture, clothing and food products, license plates, cell equipment and print services — primarily to state agencies and departments.
Prison officials say that jobs help reduce recidivism and allow incarcerated people to pay their restitution and other court-ordered fees. Participants returned to prison 26% to 38% less often, according to the California Prison Industry, and their work “provides significant economic benefits to the state.”
But advocates say the exception clause for prison labor has allowed states to exploit incarcerated people and continue slavery under a different name at the disproportionate expense of Black, Latino and Indigenous communities. A task force California set up to recommend reparations for the harm caused by slavery and racism has endorsed removing the exception clause and repealing the work requirement for incarcerated people.
Formerly incarcerated individuals said they faced serious disciplinary action if they refused work obligations, including solitary confinement or the removal of visitation and other privileges. Meanwhile, their wages rarely reach $1 an hour.
“This system of unfree labor — slave labor — by constitutional law is something that I think anybody with a conscience would find reprehensible,” said Dennis Childs, an associate professor of African American literature at UC San Diego and author of the book “Slaves of the State: Black Incarceration from the Chain Gang to the Penitentiary.”
The proposed amendment doesn’t mandate wages or dictate working conditions. Instead, proponents of ACA 8 said it could eventually pave the way for incarcerated people to have more freedom over the work they’re required to do.
Heile Gantan, a policy advocacy fellow at Anti-Recidivism Coalition, was sentenced to five years in prison and chose to join the fire camp program, which gives incarcerated people the chance to train and work as wilderness firefighters.
“That decision was voluntary,” Gantan said. “However, everything that happened after that decision was not.”
Physical training was grueling, Gantan said, and her crew had no days off during fires. Gantan watched as women endured mental and physical injuries, yet continued to work to avoid repercussion. The most she earned was $300 one fire season.
“The experience can be very traumatic for people,” she said. “Where the forced prison labor, slavery essentially, doesn’t help with mental health and rehabilitation.”
CDCR spokesperson Vicky Waters said it’s a legal requirement that individuals “participate in something meaningful while incarcerated.”
Waters said workers are assigned jobs only after a thorough evaluation, and the department considers medical and health concerns during the placement process. Individuals can also join education, substance use and other career programs, depending on their needs.
“They can have several assignments, including education, vocational training, jobs or other programs, but we do prioritize their needs. Their safety is our top priority, of course, without question, and I also know that if anyone suffers an injury while on a job assignment, they are eligible for workers’ comp like any other worker,” Waters said.
Dorsey Nunn, executive director of Legal Services for Prisoners with Children, an organization supporting ACA 8, said the issue raised “a moral question.”
Nunn served more than a decade in prison and while incarcerated at San Quentin State Prison, his job was to make detergent for California’s tunnels and highways. The work required him to handle chemicals and paid him little more than $30 a month, he said.
Prisoner advocate Dorsey Nunn wants to kick Jim Crow out of the California Constitution.
“Does slavery prepare me for the best opportunity to become an asset to the community as opposed to a liability?” he said. “What they’re doing is not necessarily leading to public safety at all.”
The proposal that failed last year initially passed the Assembly with bipartisan support before moderate Democrats joined Republicans in the Senate to block it.
Some senators argued that incarcerated people owe their victims restitution, and claimed that the amendment would affect rehabilitative efforts. Others worried about the increased cost of paying higher wages, concerns also raised by Gov. Gavin Newsom’s administration. The state Department of Finance estimated that a minimum wage requirement could cost $1.5 billion annually.
The amendment failed to win the two-thirds majority vote needed in both houses of the Legislature to be placed on the ballot.
“We are talking about the justice system, and justice for victims,” said former state Sen. Jim Nielsen (R-Red Bluff) during the debate. “This is about individuals who have harmed their fellow citizens. They are paying the price, which is justice, for the citizens of California and for particularly their victims.”
Also siding with victims was Patricia Wenskunas, founder of Crime Survivors Inc.: “We should be writing legislation that supports victims of crime and providing them equally to what the offenders and criminals are receiving. The innocent victims, survivors and family members deserve better.”
State Sen. Steve Glazer (D-Orinda) also questioned how the change would affect restitution payments and “undermine our rehabilitation programs,” while making prisons less safe. He said work requirements and how much incarcerated people make on the job was “worthy of debate,” but not in a way that would “tie the Legislature’s hand forevermore” and invite lawsuits.
Proponents backing ACA 8 reject those arguments and say that incarcerated people want to work and that fears of a labor force collapsing are unfounded.
Aaron Littman, assistant professor of law at UCLA School of Law, said work can be rehabilitative for incarcerated people, but it could be used much more effectively, and mostly in a way that provides better wages and skills training that prepares individuals for release.
Littman said how the amendment is written also matters. To change forced labor conditions, additional legislation is needed to address workers rights, wages and other employment concerns.
While some states explicitly banned slavery and involuntary servitude, others included language that still allows for prison work and makes it harder for incarcerated people to sue for labor violations.
Incarcerated people in Colorado, for example, sued the state’s prison system last year, alleging that their working conditions violated the amended state constitution. In Nebraska, some people incarcerated in a county jail are now getting paid for their work.
But in Tennessee, the amendment was written to say that “slavery and involuntary servitude are forever prohibited,” with the exception that “nothing in this section shall prohibit an inmate from working when the inmate has been duly convicted of a crime.”
Tennessee Rep. Bob Freeman, a Nashville Democrat and proponent of the amendment, said it’s had no effect on prison labor.
“The intent is that words matter, and having slavery allowable in any way, shape or form in the constitution in the state of Tennessee is not OK. And it was time to have it removed,” Freeman said.
Jamilia Land, co-founder of the Anti-Violence, Safety and Accountability Project, said it will take time to dismantle “hundreds of years of systemic oppression” and that changes to California’s prison labor standards might not be immediate.
Gavin Newsom has granted 123 commutations, or reductions of sentences, as governor. But as of January, a third of those people remained behind bars.
“We can’t forecast or foretell what it may look like,” Land said, “but it would be nice to finally live in a state and country that recognizes the basic humanity of certain groups of people.”
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