Last Updated on May 21, 2023 by BVN
Prince James Story
“California hasn’t had an era, yet, where it wasn’t practicing enslavement on a mass scale. So, that’s what we’re trying to stop. Hopefully, it will be led by Indigenous and African people, [who will] lead us into liberation,” said Jeronimo Cuauhtemoc Aguilar, a policy analyst with legal services for Prisoners with Children.
Aguilar addressed the fact that the first iteration of California’s State Constitution in 1849, embedded the same exception to slavery for imprisoned people as the 13th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
“Neither slavery, nor involuntary servitude, unless for the punishment of crimes, shall ever be tolerated in this State,” Article One, Section 18, reads.
In 1850 California passed the “Act for the Government and Protection of Indians,” introduced into law five months before California became an official state. This law legalized the indentured servitude of Native Americans, separated children and adults from their families and removed Native Americans from their lands.
Today, a group of California legislators are fighting to keep involuntary servitude out of prison.
In February, Assemblymember Lori Wilson (D-Suisun City) introduced Assembly Constitution Amendment (ACA) 8, a constitutional modification that will end slavery in any form.
In 2021, former state senator and now Rep. Sydney Kamlager (D-CA) introduced ACA 3, which defined slavery to include involuntary servitude and set out to abolish all forced labor in California.
“It’s unacceptable that California’s constitution still carries this language in the year 2021. In our great state of California— often touted as one of the most progressive states in the country— this cannot stand,” said Kamlager.
“By removing this language from our constitution, we are moving our state into the 21st century and taking steps to ensure that no Californian is ever put in a position of involuntary servitude again. Dissolving these remnants of slavery and racial inequality is more important than ever before.”
The Declaration of Rights, Section 6 of Article 1 of the state constitution reads, “Slavery in any form is prohibited. Involuntary servitude is prohibited except to punish a crime.”
“The narrative is so potent with the use of the term punishment. It renders slavery invisible. So people don’t see slaves when you could be standing right beside somebody working on the freeway. You don’t see slaves when slaves [are] out there putting out forest fires,” Dorsey Nunn, executive director of Prisoners With Children, stated about involuntary servitude.
“They don’t see slaves, even when the California Department of Corrections tries to close down the prison in Susanville and the people in Susanville [say] you need to leave the institution open because it will crash the economy of our city.”
In 2021, the city of Susanville in Lassen County, CA, filed a Writ of Mandamus and a temporary restraining order against the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR), Secretary of the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation Kathleen Allison and Gov. Gavin Newsom to block the closure of the California Correctional Center (CCC) in Susanville.
In their lawsuit, Susanville mentioned the environmental impact the closure of CCC would have on the community and also noted that CCC was a hub for firefighter training for incarcerated individuals.
The judge ruled against Susanville in September 2022, and CCC is now scheduled to close permanently by June 30. CCC is 58 years old and needs over $500 million in infrastructure repairs.
CCC existing as a firefighter camp, is one example of incarcerated people doing dangerous work for meager pay. A 2018 American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) report found that incarcerated firefighters in California were paid $1.45 daily despite battling some of the state’s most dangerous fires.
Wilson mentioned the state is one of the largest beneficiaries of prison labor, which was a big reason why ACA 3 didn’t get past the Senate floor. In November 2022, ACA 3 failed to secure 27 votes to proceed.
“I believe there was a lot of concern around the economics of it and what it would cost the state,” Wilson said. This time around, Wilson believes the outcome will be different, and they have time to talk through the language in the amendment.
“We’re incorporating conversations with senators who are still concerned and working through their concerns to ensure we get it across the finish line over there, too. So that’ll be a lot of work. It’s a dynamic situation.”
On May 18th, ACA 8 was ordered to a third reading on the Assembly floor.
“I think what this is about is treating people humanely and recognizing that even those incarcerated have value to give to our society and are valuable members of our society. Their value is not removed just because they’re incarcerated,” Wilson stated.
“It’s really important that we keep that on the forefront and we find the solution to ensure that slavery is not part of our Constitution in the state nor anywhere across our entire nation.”