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Californians Will Decide — in 2024 — Whether to Ban Slavery. What Will the Measure Do?
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By CalMatters
Published 2 weeks ago on
June 28, 2024

California’s constitution allows forced labor as a form of criminal punishment. That would change if voters approve an anti-slavery amendment this fall. (AP/Ben Margot)

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In 1850, California joined the United States union as a state that outlawed indentured servitude and slavery, except for those serving out a criminal punishment.

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Shaanth Nanguneri

CalMatters

One hundred and seventy-four years later, California voters will have the chance to put the practice to an end for good.

The California State Senate on Thursday placed a measure on the November ballot that would change the state’s constitution to prohibit any kind of forced labor. A similar measure died in the Legislature two years ago. This time, it passed by a vote of 33-3, and its approval drew loud cheers from supporters in the Capitol.

The measure — authored by Assemblymember Lori Wilson — was one of 14 bills the California Legislative Black Caucus prioritized this year as its lawmakers worked to carry out recommendations from the state-funded reparations task force. The task force last year issued a detailed report on the legacy of slavery and inequality dating back to the Gold Rush, when some Californians lived in enslavement despite California’s status as a free state.

The anti-slavery measure, known as Assembly Constitutional Amendment 8, would primarily affect state prison inmates.

“It is a testament to our collective resolve to correct historical wrongs and ensure that every individual in California is treated with the dignity and respect they deserve,” Wilson said after the vote. “Now, as we look ahead to the November 2024 ballot, let us continue to work with the same spirit of determination and unity that has brought us to this moment.

Racial justice activists have been pushing for the state to adopt a constitutional amendment outlawing the practice of involuntary servitude for years. Other states — such as Colorado, Alabama, Vermont and Tennessee — have passed similar measures in recent years. Voters in Nevada are also expected to cast ballots deciding this November on a constitutional amendment outlawing forced labor for inmates as well.

California prisons hand out about 65,000 work assignments to inmates every year, according to a 2021 official estimate. Critics say inmates often experience retaliation when they turn down dangerous assignments, hampering their futures and ability to focus on rehabilitation.

“I have been forced to work jobs and had jobs where I couldn’t get out,” Lawrence Cox, a policy fellow with nonprofit Legal Services for Prisoners with Children, told a Senate committee on June 18. As a former inmate for 17 years, he said officials at his prison threatened to write him up if he didn’t go to work. “When I wanted to take my on-site college courses to complete my degree, forced labor was prioritized over my rehabilitation.”

A Revived Movement Against Forced Labor in Prisons

The campaign to place the anti-slavery measure on the ballot has maintained that it is not opposed to prisoners holding jobs. The dignity of work is in the choice to pick up a profession that could lead to favorable skills in the future, they say, not being forced into a job that an inmate does not want to do.

State prisons hire incarcerated people for a variety of tasks, such as for janitorial, construction and fire safety. Technicians who are incarcerated make around 30 to 48 cents per hour for example, according to one committee analysis. Inmates who work to contain wildfires earn more, around $5.80 to $10.24 per day.

“Incarcerated people’s relationship to work shouldn’t be one of exploitation and little to no agency,” said Wilson, a Democrat from Suisun City. “Let us take this step to restore some dignity and humanity and prioritize rehabilitative services for the often forgotten individuals behind bars.”

Assemblymember and California Legislative Black Caucus Chairperson Lori Wilson authored an anti-slavery amendment that would ban forced labor in California, including in prisons. (CalMatters/Fred Greaves)

The practice of indentured servitude in prisons has gained growing attention over the past few years, with researchers and historians drawing parallels between the enslavement of African Americans and the disproportionate number of them who have been incarcerated.

Efforts to end the practice of forced labor by California inmates came up short in 2022 when a similar measure stalled in the Senate. The state Finance Department estimated it would cost $1.5 billion, a number that tanked support for the proposal. That was based on how much money it would cost the state to pay minimum wage — now $16 an hour — for prison jobs.

This year, supporters for the amendment agreed to change the proposal in a way that appeased its critics. Now, the measure allows prisoners the opportunity to volunteer for work assignments, but it forbids a prison from forcing inmates to work.

“This came up before in our house and it did not pass,” said Sen. Bill Dodd, a Democrat from Napa, on the Senate floor before the vote. “I just think (Assemblymember Wilson) did a wonderful job negotiating with the governor’s office and the leadership between the two houses.”

A Different Strategy for Anti-Slavery Amendment

Activists against indentured servitude said they didn’t take chances this time. They worked with Gov. Gavin Newsom to secure agreements over language in the amendment, said Carmen-Nicole Cox, director of government affairs with ACLU California Action. The California Democratic Party also endorsed their efforts, which helped them drum up support in the Legislature, she added.

“We knew that his administration last year came in last minute with a cost analysis that killed the bill. It should not have,” said Cox, referring to the 2022 cost estimate on the previous proposal.

“The idea that we would have to pay individuals should have never been any reason for us to not end slavery, because we should not be interested in exploiting human labor.”

Newsom does not have to sign the bill for it to go on the ballot. His office declined to comment on it.

A spokesperson for the state corrections department in a written statement said the prison system “values the contributions of its incarcerated workers and is committed to its mission to prepare people in its custody to successfully return to their communities.”

About the Author

Shaanth Kodialam Nanguneri comes to CalMatters as an intern on the health and justice beat. They are a rising senior at UCLA, studying geography and communication, and they were born and raised in the Bay Area. As a student, they have written for their campus newspaper, The Daily Bruin, as well as The Sacramento Bee, the Orange County Register, and The Nation.

About CalMatters

CalMatters is a nonprofit, nonpartisan newsroom committed to explaining California policy and politics.

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