CA proposes amendment to ban inmates from ‘involuntary servitude’ (aka working while in prison)

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CALIFORNIA — Opponents of prison labor are supporting a proposed amendment to ban California’s 95,000 inmates from being forced to work for low wages while incarcerated.

Assembly Constitutional Amendment (ACA) 3 is a state constitutional amendment that would prohibit involuntary servitude in California prisons.

Article 1, Section 6 of the state’s constitution states: “there shall be no slavery in this state; nor involuntary servitude, unless for the punishment of crime.”

That exception has allowed prisons to pay their prisoners penny wages for manual labor. However, inmates learn new skills and trades, such as making license plates or even fighting wildfires, which can help them find jobs after they leave prison.

However, others say making inmates work for low wages is not a good use of their time or talents.

Prisoners who work are only paid anywhere from a few cents an hour to a few dollars per day, according to ABC 7.

According to San Francisco Supervisor Matt Haney, prison labor predominantly affects black and latino people who make up the majority of inmates.

As a result, Haney is asking the Board of Supervisors to become the first to formally back the overhaul proposed by Democratic Assemblywoman Sydney Kamlager of Los Angeles:

“Even through the COVID-19 pandemic, California inmates have been forced to work for as low as 8 cents per hour. Many have been on the front lines fighting our increasingly dangerous wildfires, earning just $2 to $6 a day.”

Inmates have been used to help fight the wildfires that have devastated California, but their numbers have dropped in recent years due to the state’s easing of sentencing laws and moving offenders to county custody instead of state prisons.

Daily wages can range from $2.90 to $5.12, depending on skill level, but inmate firefighters get an additional $1 an hour when assigned to emergencies, corrections officials said.

 The prison system also relies on inmates to cook, clean, tend to gardens and perform other tasks that help run the facility on a daily basis.

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Inmates also work for the Prison Industry Authority, which has produced most of the prison system’s protective equipment during the pandemic along with more traditional products such as vehicle license plates, furniture, road signs, clothing and different food products, according to ABC 7.

Nina Salarno, president of Crime Victims United of California, claimed that ending inmate labor programs, including the firefighting program, would only hurt California residents:

“This law would hurt rehabilitation efforts … because you are then taking away incentives for inmates to learn skills and trades so they can come back into society and be self-sufficient.”

 The labor inmates perform helps train them to become ready for a job upon release. In addition, taxpayers save money when these same inmates no longer return to prison because they have found a job in a field that they were trained in.

Inmates who apply to work for the Prison Industry Authority receive credits toward earlier release, along with the potential for industry certifications in fields such as computer coding, welding or metal working. Nearly 4,700 inmates are currently in the program, which has space for more than 6,700 inmates, according to ABC 7.

Inmates are generally paid 40 cents to $1 an hour, but there are also a limited number who work for private companies while serving their sentences and receive industry-comparable wages.

However, others disagree about the benefits to inmates or society.

Legal Services for Prisoners with Children executive director Dorsey Nunn, who co-founded the reform group All of Us or None, was sentenced to life in prison when he was 19 and then paroled in 1981, according to ABC 7.

Nunn disputed the benefits of the prison work while arguing that an amendment would do more to promote racial equity and healing than recent efforts to rename schools and tear down statues of controversial figures:

“People actually thought that my rehabilitation was occurring because they were forcing me to work. Actually, involuntary servitude gives work a bad name.

“You can’t volunteer when you’re being forced to do this stuff. Nobody in their right mind in the state of California would take a job if they was paying you 15 cents an hour or seven cents an hour or $2 a day.”

Nunn and other proponents hope a change in the California Constitution will eventually lead to a similar ban in the U.S. Constitution. The state’s current wording dates from 1974 and reads:

“Slavery is prohibited. Involuntary servitude is prohibited except to punish crime.”

The proposed amendment would change the wording to:

“Slavery and involuntary servitude are prohibited.”

Nunn also said that the good job-training programs now benefit relatively few of California’s inmates:

“Half the people that work in the prison are sweeping, picking up paper and doing other stuff. It’s no great skill being taught and they’re being paid pennies on the day.”

According to George Galvis, co-founder of All of Us or None and executive director of Communities United for Restorative Youth Justice, inmates should be allowed to volunteer for work, but get paid competitive wages:

“If we can’t pass this in California, then there’s something very, very wrong.

“California likes to very much consider itself to be one of the centers of progressive movements in this country and I think it’s really time to move beyond sort of the performative ally-ship on these issues.”

Putting the amendment before voters would take a two-thirds vote in both chambers of the Legislature, where Democrats hold an edge. Proponents noted that similar changes have already been adopted in more conservative states, such as Colorado, Nebraska and Utah.

The Abolish Slavery National Network says similar efforts are underway in New Jersey and South Carolina.

Changing the U.S. Constitution would take approval from two-thirds of states.

Riverside County Supervisor Manny Perez intends to bring up a resolution supporting the California effort when his board meets March 9. He called inmate labor part of “the lingering legacy of slavery.”

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