By David M. Greenwald
Sacramento, CA – Assemblymember Lori Wilson hosted a press conference introducing The End Slavery in California Act. The act is an Assembly Constitutional Amendment that will remove involuntary servitude from the State Constitution. Assemblymember Wilson joined by colleagues in the Assembly, Mia Bonta and Matt Haney.
California is among only 16 states with an exception clause for involuntary servitude in their State Constitutions. Multiple other states have removed such exception clauses from their constitutions in recent years, like Tennessee, Alabama, and Vermont.
Similar legislation last term by Senator Sydney Kamlager fell short of passage.
Wilson, who represents most of Solano County and parts of Contra Costa and Sacramento County in the legislature, explained that “one of my chief responsibilities was and is to end systematic racism and root out discrimination in all its forms.”
She also chairs the California Legislative Black Caucus.
She noted that Blacks make up only 6 percent of the overall population in the state but represent 28 percent of those incarcerated.
“The allowance of slavery in our prisons disproportionately impacts Black people, those of a community still impacted by the aftermath of slavery in our country,” Wilson said.
She explained, “California was founded as a free state. There is no room for slavery in our constitution. It is not consistent with values nor our humanity, definitely not in 2023. The legacy of slavery and forced labor runs deep in our history. From the exploitation of indigenous people in the Spanish missions to Black slaves being forced to mine for gold today, slavery takes on the modern form of involuntary servitude, including forced labor in prisons.”
While the 13th Amendment abolished slavery, it provides an exemption for those convicted of crimes.
As Wilson explained, “Every incarcerated person currently gets assigned to specific work without choice in the type of job or work schedules when they enter prison. When incarcerated people turn down work assignments on, unable, unable to report to work such as when they were sick or sustained injuries, they are offered, often retaliated against in cruel ways. Punishment includes physical violence, denial of phone calls and family visits, solitary confinements and extension of their sentences. It is dehumanizing and should stop.”
She noted noted that “most incarcerated people want to work” and that “people in prison still have expenses.”
But she argued, “Threatening and punishing them to work is unnecessary and dehumanizing.”
Jamilia Land with the Abolished Slavery National Network explained, “We are a national coalition that is seeking to remove involuntary servitude from each and every state’s constitution that possesses this language.”
She said they were “successful in getting four out of the five states that were on the ballot successfully passed, including Alabama. And if any of you know the history of slavery in the United States of America and its roots in Alabama, then you will know that it is absolutely disgraceful that California was unsuccessful in passing this piece of legislation last year.”
Geronimo Aguilar from Legal Services for Prisoners with Children, noted that in 1850, California gained statehood, there was an 1850 Act for Government and Protection of Indians, which he explained “began to codify the terrorism that was being inflicted upon native peoples. It was a vagrancy law which criminalized native people in order to exploit their labor and pay their so-called debt back to society. It was these types of laws which are known by indigenous peoples in California as the red codes.”
He explained that it was these red codes “that served as a model for the deep south and led to the same utilization of the criminal justice system to dehumanize and enslave African and indigenous peoples.”
He said, “I share all this to uncover the state’s reliance on cheap and free labor throughout history, which has made our current system almost invisible. But there is a better way today, no matter if you’re white, brown, black, red, or yellow, if you get caught up in the system, you will inevitably be forced to work and have your body become a vessel of economic exploitation.
“This is a history that should be made just that, history. But until we change things, this history will continue being our current day reality.”
Samual Brown, of the Anti-Violence Safety and Accountability Project, was the original author of this legislation—he wrote it in his cell while incarcerated with a life sentence.
He explained that he graduated with honors from UCLA, he took thousands of hours of self-help programming, and, “All I needed to get was one disciplinary report from failing to report to work, and they would deem me as an unreasonable risk to society and denied me the opportunity to come home.”
As he put it, “I could go years disciplinary free, involve myself in every rehabilitative opportunity that’s known to me and if I refused to go to work for one day …” he said, explaining how he was asked to clean up after COVID infected people while in prison. “They threaten me with the modern day whip, which is the 115, and said, if you don’t report to work, you’re going to get this 115.”
That could have extended his term 15 years.
“This is what modern day slavery looks like,” he said.
“Slavery has a long history in our country,” Assemblymember Mia Bonta said. “The reality is that slavery has a current existence in our country and in our state because of the way that we deny an opportunity for people to choose the work they want, want to do, even when they are in our prison systems. We know that indentured servitude exists and in some sectors we have taken active and proactive approaches to end that practice.”
She added “for reasons I cannot understand and frankly refuse to understand, our constitution allows the legacy of slavery to still exist by affirming that indentured servitude is okay if it occurs in the context of the punishment of crime. Dissolving the remnants of slavery and racial inequality is more important now than ever.
“Our state constitution has yet to reflect the values of equality and justice that Californians now hold so dear. And so here we stand with yet another opportunity to right the wrongs that are happening today.”