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Aerial view of San Quentin State Prison and the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge, California.
Photo by Jim Harris on Unsplash

The U.S. Constitution bans slavery, but it allows forced labor — otherwise known as involuntary servitude — as punishment for crime. 

California is one of 47 states that still have that vestige of slavery written into their state constitutions. According to a legislative analysis, that allows the state prison system to continue paying prisoners anywhere from 8 to 37 cents an hour, depending on the job and skill level required to perform it. 

In late June, state legislators voted against The California Abolition Act, a proposal to remove involuntary servitude from California’s constitution. That means Californians won’t have the chance to vote on the potential amendment during the November elections this year. 

The Associated Press reported last month that the amendment received pushback from Gov. Gavin Newsom’s administration, which warned that passing it could have forced the state to pay incarcerated people the minimum wage of $15 an hour, costing taxpayers about $1.5 billion per year.

Read Lamar Moore’s story on working on a “hoe squad,” without pay, on land that used to belong to slave plantations: Arkansas Prisons’ Unpaid Labor Program Is Criminal.

As Sen. Sydney Kamlager, a Los Angeles Democrat and author of the proposed constitutional amendment, said in June, of course it was cheaper not to pay prisoners

“This country has been having economic discussions for hundreds of years around slavery and involuntary servitude and indentured servitude,” she said. “Obviously, you keep people as slaves and you keep them as indentured servants … because it is cheaper to do so … I mean, I think this is what we are talking about that led to the Civil War.”

Three statesColorado, Utah and Nebraska — have banned involuntary servitude in their prisons. Several others have begun to question the validity of the ancient practice. 

But with its recent vote, California’s government has effectively declared this truth to be self-evident: Not all of us are created equal.

After the police murder of George Floyd in May 2020, Gov. Newsom said he wanted to “root out the racial injustice that haunts our society.” But to me, it now appears that people of color have been duped.

This latest blow came just after African American people celebrated Juneteenth — a commemoration of emancipation — and after a California reparations task force backed the elimination of involuntary servitude in state prisons. 

It is not surprising that California is holding on to the last remnant of slavery in its laws. That’s because it benefits prisons. The state has more than 30 prisons, which on average house close to 100,000 incarcerated people, 65,000 of whom are employed by the prison system. In the most recent state budget, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation received a $14 billion allocation.  

This heavy funding of incarceration happens while close to a third of Californians live in or near poverty. More than 160,000 Californians are without a home on any given day, living near interstate off-ramps and on city streets. A Los Angeles Times survey found that much of the city’s unhoused population struggles with substance abuse and mental illness.  

These issues can be linked to incarceration as many unhoused people, people with mental health issues or people struggling with substance abuse wind up incarcerated. 

On top of that, a disproportionate amount of California prisoners are people of color. Many of us are elderly, and many of us are serving life or life without parole. Some of us have even fought wildfires for meager wages

We live in a state with a gross domestic product north of $3 trillion, making it the fifth largest economy in the world, right ahead of the United Kingdom. People in prison across the country generate about $11 billion in goods and services while only making cents per hour for their work. 

As people celebrated the Fourth of July this year, it made me think about all the freedoms people in California prisons don’t have, despite the fact that we give more to the state’s economy than we get back. 

(Additional reporting by PJP Team)

Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.

Steve Brooks is a writer for San Quentin News, an award-winning newspaper published out of San Quentin State Prison in California, where he is incarcerated. He has been published in the San Francisco Public Press, Street Spirit, All of Us or None and Voice of Witness. He is also a member of the Society of Professional Journalists and has won a 2020 Journalism Excellence Award by SPJ's Northern California chapter for two of his columns published by PJP.