California legislators are calling for an end to involuntary servitude for incarcerated people by making all prison labor voluntary, The Associated Press reported.
Though the U.S. Constitution has banned slavery since the mid-19th century, it continues to allow involuntary servitude as the punishment for a crime. But a growing number of states are working to eliminate involuntary servitude for any reason.
“The nature of this measure is importantly symbolic. There is no place for slavery, forced labor or involuntary servitude on our books,” said Assemblyman Ash Kalra (D-San Jose).
Colorado and Utah got rid of involuntary servitude in their state constitutions in 2018, followed by Nebraska in 2020, noted the AP.
On March 28th the bill passed in the California State Assembly. Now it comes before the State Senate. If cleared by June, it will be on the November ballot.
According to Assemblyman Kalra, the bill would “remove the ability to force anyone that is incarcerated to do work they choose not to do.”
For decades after slavery was outlawed, prisons were able to make money by leasing out their inmates to do work for private companies, most of these workers were African Americans.
Today’s prison jobs include work as clerks, painters, and carpenters. Wages start at 0.08 to 0.37 cents a hour, with a minimum of $20 monthly, the AP reported.
California’s prison population is re
quired to work or participate in education or rehabilitation programs. Some incarcerated people can work and learn industry-level skills, earning certifications in things like meat cutting, or maintenance at healthcare facilities.
Though the law, if fully approved, would make labor voluntary for incarcerated people, it would not change their wages, according to the AP.
California’s minimum wage is now $15 an hour for businesses of 26 or more employees. It is unlikely that prison labor could ever be paid at that rate as it would cost the state billions of dollars.
Kalra told the AP that he hopes an amendment will be on the November ballot.
“I think it polls pretty strongly when folks are asked whether we should get rid of the exemptions to involuntary servitude and slavery, said Kalra.