A proposed amendment in California’s constitution that would outlaw involuntary servitude as a punishment for crime failed to pass the state senate. As the Associated Press notes, California Gov. Gavin Newsom’s administration argued that paying prisoners a $15-per-hour minimum wage would cost taxpayers billions. Currently, prisoners can make as low as 8 cents an hour.
While the 13th Amendment outlaws slavery, California law allows involuntary servitude to punish someone for a crime. Inmates lack the same protections regular workers have regarding minimum wage and benefits. Prisons can also enforce discipline for refusing to work, including reduced privileges like limits on visits, telephone calls, and time out of their cells.
Assemblymember, now state Senator Sydney Kamlager introduced the “ Assembly Constitutional Amendment 3 (ACA 3), the California Abolition Act, in 2020. The state assembly passed the amendment with a 59-0 vote in March. As Kamlager notes, she ran out of time and supporters when the amendment fell seven votes short of the two-thirds margin it needed in the Senate. Voters in states like Louisiana, Oregon, and Tennessee will decide on similar provisions in the November elections.
“One of the challenges we’ve had is people are conflating policy with a moral argument about taking out words that are historical, that are loaded, that are remnants of a slave past and that were implemented in ways that made people less human,” Kamlager said in an interview.
The American Civil Liberties released a report calling for incarcerated workers to be paid fairly, adequately trained, and able to gain transferable skills. Former California State Prison inmate Samual Brown had to clean and disinfect prison cells during the height of the pandemic even while having asthma. While serving a 24-year attempted murder conviction, Brown worked several jobs, including porter, dishwasher, and hospital janitor, paying .75 cents an hour.
As his comments to Cal Matters show, he could not change his job despite his medical condition.
“They have various ways they force you,” said Brown, who was released this year from California State Prison in Los Angeles County. “This includes stripping you of your phone rights, stripping you of your visitation rights, stripping you of your ability to order personal food.”