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California is one of 16 states that allows forced labor, but a constitutional amendment seeks to change that

 A pair of correctional officers walk through the exercise yard at San Quentin State Prison in San Quentin, Calif., Friday, March 17, 2023.
Eric Risberg
AP Photo
A pair of correctional officers walk through the exercise yard at San Quentin State Prison in San Quentin, Calif., Friday, March 17, 2023.

While involuntary servitude is largely banned in California, there is one exception — as punishment for a crime.

Nationwide, states are reevaluating whether involuntary servitude has a place in prisons, including lawmakers in California. Currently, the state is one of 16 that allows for this forced labor exception.

However, there is a bill — Assembly Constitutional Amendment No. 8 — that’s working its way through the state and aims to end this practice. It would let voters decide whether to change the language in the state constitution to "prohibit slavery in any form, including forced labor, but the use of threat or threat of physical or legal coercion."

Those who are currently incarcerated are generally paid from $0.08 to $0.37 an hour, which comes out to about $12 to $56 monthly paychecks, depending on the type of labor. Often the jobs include making furniture for state offices, stamping license plates, debris cleanup and fighting wildfires alongside other fire agencies.

The prison population is also disproportionately people of color. While Black residents make up just 6% of the state's overall population, in prisons, Black people make up 28% of the population — that's more than four times the percentage of the general public, according to the Public Policy Institute of California.

CapRadio’s Vicki Gonzalez spoke with Dorsey Nunn, Executive Director of Legal Services for Prisoners with Children and Co-Founder of All of Us or None, and Assembly member Lori D. Wilson, the author of the bill ACA 8, to discuss their experiences and work surrounding involuntary servitude.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Interview highlights

On how time in prison shaped Nunn’s understanding of the justice system

Nunn: One of the things that did initially stand out — I can still remember waking in … what I saw was a large concentration of Black and Brown people. And when I started running across people that I grew up with, I was asking the question, “How did we all end up in this situation?” When I was incarcerated initially, I was angry.

My daughter started growing up … she was asking me, “Daddy, are you going to be home when I get married?” … I didn’t want to be a burden on my family.

I was trying to actually figure out how to navigate that space [outside of prison] because I came from a poor background. When I was in prison … the most money I ever made on any employment situation inside that institution was $31 or $32 a month, which didn’t give me the ability to save any resources to actually navigate space when I was released from prison.

… I was a 31-year-old man, and the maximum amount of money that I had been able to wrap my head around was probably $500 or $600 in terms of savings … what [the prison] was doing was enslaving a group of people.

Some of these people that they enslaved were descendants of people from chattel slavery because if you look at the numbers … the incarceration rate for black men and black women far exceeds the incarceration rate of everybody else.

Some of us went directly from chattel slavery to state-sponsored slavery. I think that slavery can be made invisible, and in my situation, my slavery was made invisible by the narrative of my punishment. It wasn’t just a punishment in itself — it was that people were actually exploiting me.

On how involuntary servitude can equate to slavery

Nunn: I’m one of the people that in California — for periods of time — could be sold on the stock exchange. When [the state] actually [allowed] private prisons, they had embedded in their contract capacity levels that had to be met.

[Private prisons] would pay for the privilege of actually locking me up — they would be paying the Correctional Corporation of America — it was trading bodies.

Amendment 1, Section 6 in the California constitution has in it the ability to actually practice involuntary servitude, and involuntary servitude is slavery. We like to use words that actually confuse people.

As taxpayers, we’re probably all guilty of enslaving people … The question I want to ask California … in a country that was built on the backs of slaves, should slavery be permissible under any circumstances?

I have had no other job since I’ve been out other than fighting for the full restoration of the civil and human rights of incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people. And if you noticed, I said “formerly incarcerated people,” emphasis is “people.” I don’t want to be judged based on the worst day of my life.

… So we have built a nation on the backs of chattel slavery. We think that we have a higher moral ground, [but] actually still participate in [slavery] by allowing it through language.

On why a similar act failed to pass

Wilson: [When I was first elected, I was] a member of the Black Caucus. ACA 8, at the time it was AC 3, was a priority bill. As a new member of the legislature and a new member of the caucus, I was learning about what our priority bills [were] and trying to understand the background behind them.

And to be honest, I wasn't really worried about AC 3. It seemed like, as a new legislator, a no-brainer. I just assumed that one was going to pass … and so I became really surprised when we got towards the end of the session, and this wasn't making it off the floor on the Senate side.

There were a lot of conversations around the economic impact on California, a lot of conversations happening around "what is punishment," "what is rehabilitation," "what does that mean," because we had very strong views.

When it didn't pass, it was really important for me that we picked up this bill again and that we fight for it from day one to ensure it makes it across the finish line because [the bill failing] was just absolutely inconsistent with our values.

My desire to be a part of this conversation really came from the fact that we were still having the conversation in 2022.

On the economic impact the state may face if it eliminates forced labor in prisons

Wilson: California is the great beneficiary to [forced labor] being in our constitution. We receive all the benefits primarily from it, and so, of course, there’s going to be an economic impact in that way.

… The question is, what is a working wage or a minimum wage when you’re incarcerated, when a portion of your expenses are paid by something else, by the state?

When you think about what our moral values are — what our aspirational goals as a state are — and where we’ve aligned ourselves as the most progressive state in the union, we have to say that the economic loss or impact to our state cannot be worth this.

Just like that, calculus was made when we talked about slavery as a country a long time ago. It was determined that though there was going to be an economic impact, the value of human life was much greater.

And I think we need to be at that position in the state that we as legislators, because we’re the ones involved in this decision, both in the Assembly and in the Senate, to bring this to the voters. We, as legislators, say the value of a human life, the value of rehabilitation, the value of giving people a second chance, is way more important an economic impact.

And we really need to define what that economic impact is and as well give that to the voters, so the others can decide this as well and agree with us.

When it comes to this particular issue, it’s about the Legislature saying human life is more important than slavery, even in a modern form, and it’s giving the voters the opportunity to agree with us.

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