Last year, voters in Vermont, Oregon, Tennessee and Alabama approved historic ballots removed slavery and involuntary servitude as punishment for crime from their state constitutions, which could lead to restrictions on forced labor in prisons. They joined a growing list of states that have taken 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 solicited voters remove an exception in the state constitution that makes involuntary servitude possible criminal punishment.
The emotional debate pitted arguments comparing prison labor to slavery against concerns that eliminating work requirements would undermine rehabilitation and jeopardize restitution payments to crime victims. Divisions between moderate Democrats and Progressives, along with the price tag attached to the plan, ultimately undermined the legislation.
But now Democrats are trying again, hoping last year’s passage in other states could help garner more support in California. Constitutional amendment meeting 8 — known as the “End Slavery in California Act” — would “prohibit slavery in any form,” including “forced labor compelled by the use or threat of physical or legal coercion.”
The California Constitution mirrors the 13th Amendment to the United States Constitution, which prohibits slavery but allows involuntary servitude if punishment for crime. Proponents pushing for the change, however, argue that involuntary servitude is just another word for slavery.
If passed by two-thirds of both chambers 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 whether the proposal would be more of a symbolic change than a meaningful reform of California’s prisons.
Assemblyman Lori D. Wilson (D-Suisun), who wrote the measure and leads the legislature’s Black Caucus, said it’s important to start by amending the state constitution first.
“There is no room for slavery in our Constitution,” Wilson said. “It is not in line with our values, nor with our humanity.”
The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, or CDCR, requires most inmates to work while in prisonwhere individuals are assigned jobs which range from construction work and dog training to computer coding and hospice care.
All around 7,000 people have work orders through the California Prison Industrya state-owned company that employs inmates and sells its goods – including office furniture, clothing and food products, license plates, mobile devices and printing services – primarily to government agencies and departments.
Prison officials say jobs help reduce recidivism and allow inmates to pay their restitution and other court-mandated costs. 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 proponents say the prison labor exception has allowed states to exploit incarcerated people and perpetuate slavery under a different name at the expense of Black, Latino and Indigenous communities. A task force created by California to recommend reparations for the damage caused by slavery and racism supported the deletion of the exemption clause and the repeal of the work requirement for detainees.
Formerly detained individuals they said face severe disciplinary action if they refused work obligations, including solitary confinement or the removal of visitation rights and other privileges. Meanwhile, their wages rarely reach $1 an hour.
“This system of unfree labor — slave labor — under the Constitution is something that I think anyone with a conscience would find objectionable,” 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 prison.
The proposed change does not prescribe wages or working conditions. Instead, proponents of ACA 8 said it could eventually pave the way for incarcerated people to have more freedom about the work they need to do.
Heile Gantan, a policy advocate with the Anti-Recidivism Coalition, was sentenced to five years in prison and chose to participate in the fire camp program, which gives inmates the opportunity to train and work as firefighters in the wilderness.
“That decision was voluntary,” said Gantan. “Everything that happened after that decision, however, was not.”
Physical training was grueling, Gantan said, and her crew had no days off during fires. Gantan watched as women suffered mental and physical injuries, yet continued to work to avoid repercussions. The most she made was $300 per fire season.
“The experience can be very traumatic for people,” she said. “Where the forced prison labor, essentially slavery, does not help with mental health and rehabilitation.”
CDCR spokesperson Vicky Waters said it is a legal requirement that individuals “participate in something meaningful while in prison.”
Waters said that employees are only assigned jobs after a thorough evaluation, and that the department considers medical and health concerns during the placement process. Individuals may also participate in education, substance use and other career programs, depending on their needs.
“They may have multiple assignments, including education, vocational training, jobs or other programs, but we put their needs first. Their safety is of course our top priority, and I also know that if someone is injured on assignment, they are eligible for workers compensation just like any other employee,” said Waters.
Dorsey Nunn, executive director of Legal Services for Prisoners with Children, an organization that supports ACA 8, said the matter 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 job involved handling chemicals and paid him just over $30 a month, he said.
“Does slavery prepare me for the best chance of becoming an asset to the community rather than a liability?” he said. “What they’re doing doesn’t necessarily lead to public safety.”
The proposal that failed last year was initially approved by the General Assembly dual support before moderate Democrats joined Senate Republicans in blocking it.
Some senators argued that inmates owe their victims restitution, claiming the change would affect rehabilitation efforts. Others were concerned about the increased cost of paying higher wages, concerns also voiced by Governor Gavin Newsom’s administration. The Treasury Department estimated that a minimum wage requirement could cost $1.5 billion annually.
The amendment failed to gain the two-thirds majority of the vote needed in both houses of the legislature to be placed on the ballot.
“We’re talking about the justice system and justice for victims,” former state senator Jim Nielsen (R-Red Bluff) said during the debate. “These are individuals who have harmed their fellow citizens. They are paying the price, which is justice, for the citizens of California and especially for their victims.”
Patricia Wenskunas, founder of Crime Survivors Inc., also supported the victims’ side: “We should write legislation that supports victims of crime and gives them as much as what the perpetrators and criminals receive. The innocent victims, survivors and relatives deserve better.”
State Senator 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 job requirements and how much incarcerated people earn on the job were “worthy of debate,” but not in a way that would “bind the legislature forever” and provoke lawsuits.
Proponents supporting ACA 8 reject those arguments, saying inmates want to work and fears of a collapse in the workforce are unfounded.
Aaron Littman, an assistant professor of law at the UCLA School of Law, said work can be rehabilitative for inmates, but it can be used much more effectively, and usually in a way that provides better wages and skills training that prepares individuals for release.
Littman said how the amendment is written also matters. Changing forced labor conditions will require additional legislation to address workers’ rights, wages and other employment issues.
While some states explicitly prohibited slavery and involuntary servitudeothers include language that still allows prison work and makes it more difficult for inmates to sue for labor violations.
For example, inmates in Colorado last year sued the state prison system over their working conditions in violation of the amended state constitution. In Nebraska, some people are now incarcerated in a county jail get 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 a prisoner from working when the prisoner has been duly convicted of a crime.”
Tennessee Representative Bob Freeman, a Nashville Democrat and proponent of the amendment, said it has had no effect on prison labor.
“Words are meant to matter, and for slavery to be allowed 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 prison labor standards may not happen immediately.
“We can’t predict or predict what it will 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.”