Guest Commentary: Is Prison Labor Involuntary Servitude?

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By Rob Sharp

A FORMER OREGON prisoner wrote an article in the April/May edition of Esquire magazine. The headline said it all: “When I Did Time, I Was Legally, Officially Enslaved: Oregon And 19 Other States Still Use Language From the 13th Amendment to Govern Working Conditions for Inmates.”

To back up his claim, the author cited the Oregon Constitution:

There shall neither be slavery, nor involuntary servitude in the state, otherwise than as punishment for crime, whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.

The California Constitution states, more succinctly, that Slavery is prohibited. Involuntary servitude is prohibited except to punish crime.

The magazine article author, Mr. Jackson, asks “Can you believe [that] in the 21st century, we have to wage a campaign to nix language that sanctions slavery?” Jackson goes on to point out that the state of California pays its non-CalPIA (California Prison Industry Authority) workers 8¢ to 37¢ an hour, those “lucky” enough to even have a paying job.

Those pay rates were established in the early 1980s, and with the expansion of restitution fines — some as high as dozens of thousands of dollars— many working prisoners can barely afford a tube of toothpaste and a few ramen soups. This is made even more complicated with the continual increases in canteen prices.

In Oregon, Willamette University graduates spawned a group named OASIS (Oregonians Against Slavery and Involuntary Servitude) with the goal of amplifying “the voices of the incarcerated in dismantling racist policies.” The group is trying to get the Oregon legislature to remove the slavery and involuntary servitude language from the Oregon Constitution.

Jackson also points out the well-worn excuse of low-skilled, low-pay prison jobs being a sort of “apprenticeship training” for future outside employment, “providing job skills [prisoners] can use upon release.” While true in some circumstances, such as the CalPIA jobs, a relatively small percentage of prisoners actually gets such jobs. Even then, 35¢ to $1 an hour hardly qualifies as living wages, even in the penitentiary.

In 2020, the California Senate resolved to raise inmate pay; however, due to the COVID-19 interruption it failed to gain much traction. The non-binding resolution was meant to test the waters as to whether an actual bill would stand up to legislative bickering.

Taking a cue from Oregon, here is a valid question: Shouldn’t Californians also move to have the “except to punish crime” portion of the constitution stricken? Or do we still see involuntary servitude as something socially acceptable and tolerated?

Originally Published in the Mule Creek Post


About The Author

Disclaimer: the views expressed by guest writers are strictly those of the author and may not reflect the views of the Vanguard, its editor, or its editorial board.

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