Battle to End Forced Labor in California Reignited by Democrats

Assemblywoman Lori Wilson has reintroduced the failed measure from 2022, which was written by Samual Nathaniel Brown while incarcerated in L.A.

California Democrats have reintroduced an amendment to bring an end to the state’s forced labor practices for its incarcerated population after an attempt in the 2022 session died in the state Senate. If it passes, California’s constitution will ban “slavery in any form,” and end California’s exception of using “involuntary servitude” as punishment.

Originally authored by Samual Nathaniel Brown while he was an inmate at the California State Prison Los Angeles County in Lancaster, the “End Slavery in California Act” seeks to bring an end to the U.S.’s heinous history of forced labor. Brown is also the founder of the Anti-Violence Safety and Accountability Project with his wife, Jamilia Land.

“We’ve never had a system without slavery at its core,” Brown tells LAMag. “You don’t develop a person’s work ethic under the threat of a whip, or a 115 [discipline report], because that’s not how it works in real life.”

If passed by a two-thirds majority in the legislature, the measure would be sent to ballots in 2024 to let voters decide on the future of forced labor in the state. Advocacy groups and District 11 Assemblywoman Lori Wilson, who introduced this year’s iteration of the measure (ACA-8), both equate the use of involuntary servitude to modern-day slavery.

“Involuntary servitude is without a doubt, an extension of slavery. California was founded as a free state,” Wilson, who is also the Chair of the Legislature’s Black Caucus, said at a press conference on Monday. “There is no room for slavery in our constitution.”

In the U.S., slavery and involuntary servitude were abolished by the 13th amendment, but an exception was included for use as a form of punishment following a crime. California’s state constitution, like those of many other U.S. states, reads much the same: “Slavery is prohibited. Involuntary servitude is prohibited except to punish crime.”

ACA-8 would change California’s constitution to state, “slavery in any form is prohibited”.

About 65,000 inmates are incarcerated with assigned jobs in California, tasked with assignments that include wildland firefighting, cooking, cleaning, construction, and computer coding, the L.A. Times reports. Any “able-bodied prisoner” is required to work “as many hours of faithful labor in each day and every day,” according to the Department of Corrections penal code section 2700.

“I don’t know what that sounds like to you, that sounds like slavery to me,” Land, who is also a coordinator for the Abolish Slavery National Network, tells LAMag. “That sounds like forced labor. That has nothing to do with pay. That has to do with ‘we want our prisons to run and we are going to force you all to make them run’.”

Declining or refusing to work can bring a disciplinary write-up, which could impact a person’s chances for parole.

The opponents of the 2022 bill said that removing the ability to force people to work would interfere with their rehabilitation and restitution for victims. Some, including many in Gov. Gavin Newsom’s administration, have argued there could be significant financial costs to the state if wages were to be increased for inmates. Often, incarcerated workers receive under $1 an hour.

Colorado, Nebraska, and Utah have already removed similar language from their constitutions. But according to newly-elected California House Representative Sydney Kamlager, who introduced the 2022 version of the measure while in the state Senate, none of these three states haven’t faced the financial repercussions of their decision, the Associated Press reported.

The California Department of Finance said that raising pay to the minimum wage could cost the state $1.5 billion each year. Keeping involuntary servitude in the name of saving some money, however, didn’t go over well with Senator Kamlager. 

“This country has been having economic discussions for hundreds of years around slavery and involuntary servitude and indentured servitude,” she said last year. “Obviously, you keep people as slaves and you keep them as indentured servants… because it is cheaper to do so…I think this is what we are talking about that led to the Civil War.”

Beyond a pay increase—which can be used for restitution and personal needs—for Wilson and Brown, inmates should be allowed to choose jobs and shifts that don’t interfere with their rehabilitative programs and which will provide skills needed upon their release. 

“We’re not saying we don’t want people to work and we’re not saying that people in a carceral setting would not want to work,” Brown said. “We’re saying that if a person in prison does work, then it should be something that they can take with them outside of the prison setting and use towards improving the quality of their life.

The Department of Corrections told CalMatters that “Every job is dignified, and they are jobs that are similar to those outside of prison.”

At the end of the day, the measure presents a chance for California to denounce the country’s history of slavery, involuntary servitude, and exploitation from its constitution and penal system.

“We will be giving [our incarcerated population] back their natural born right that they have as human beings,” Land said. “That our constitution in California and our Federal Constitution has stripped away for hundreds of years.”

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