Incarcerated workers may soon have a reason to celebrate Labor Day as a lawmaker’s work to remove the last vestiges of slavery from California’s Constitution.
Assembly Constitutional Amendment 3 (ACA 3), if placed on the November 2022 ballot, would remove a clause in the State’s Constitution that allows criminal punishment to include involuntary servitude.
The new measure was proposed by Assembly Member Sydney Kamlager (D-Los Angeles).
“By removing this language from our constitution, we are moving our state into the 21st century and taking steps to ensure that no Californian is ever put in a position of involuntary servitude again,” Kamlager said.
California law currently requires, “every able-bodied person” committed to the custody of the Secretary of the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) to work. Failure to work can result in progressive disciplinary action including
, loss of privileges, parole denials, and delayed-release dates.
“We’re our own worst enemies,” said San Quentin resident Michael Moore. “We just accept whatever they give us.” Moore said that if he had a choice he wouldn’t work because it only benefits the system.” “I [would] rather go to school. That benefits me.”
“I know what I do is slave labor but I feel better when I’m working,” said Michael Mathis.” Being trapped in a small cell most of the day, especially with another person, is a strong psychological inducement to work.”
Mathis is a cook in the main kitchen and makes .24 cents per hour.
Mathis doesn’t believe an incarcerated worker will ever make minimum wage. But he believes he should make at least .35 to .50 cents per hour for his labor.
During the pandemic, incarcerated workers were subjected to conditions not seen since the Industrial Revolution.
Many of them worked in factories making masks and hand sanitizers, toilet paper, protective gowns, license plates, furniture and, sewing clothes. Some were forced to work 12-16 hour shifts. In some cases, there was a lack of fresh air and sanitation, proper ventilation, or personal protective equipment to combat COVID-19.
SQ kitchen workers are only allowed to be paid for 150 hours per month. They often exceeded those hours during the pandemic. At that point, they were working without pay.
For some job positions, like yard crew workers and building porters, only the lead person is paid.
Workers who owe restitution, court fines, or fees, have fifty-five percent of their wages taken
“I been working on the yard crew for three years and I have never been paid for my labor,” Said SQ resident Gary Green.
Green helps maintain the lower yard at SQ. He picks up trash, pulls weeds, waters grass, shovels dirt, rakes geese crap, cleans bathroom facilities, and whatever else is needed to maintain the grounds.
”I don’t mind working but I’d like to get paid for my labor,” said Green.
Building porters at SQ had to sanitize cells and pick up soiled linen and trash possibly infected with COVID-19.
Many incarcerated workers caught COVID-19 and some died.
Ironically, while California prisons still use forced labor, CDCR no longer uses the word “punishment” to reflect its mission.
“The goal of CDCR is to facilitate the successful reintegration of the individuals in our care back to their communities equipped with the tools to be drug-free, healthy, and employable members of society by providing education, treatment, rehabilitative, and restorative justice programs, all in a safe and humane environment,” according to CDCR’s mission statement.
As of March 2021, CDCR had canceled activities that benefit prisoners, like rehabilitation programs, education classes, religious services and visits with loved ones to slow COVID-19. But work was still required for those considered “critical” workers.
SQ residents were threatened with disciplinary action if they refused to work due to COVID-19 fears. Staff told workers that they would write 115 Rule Violation Reports, terminate workers, encourage parole denials, and prevent early releases in response to work refusals.
Colorado, Nebraska, and Utah have already outlawed slavery and involuntary servitude in their prisons, according to the Abolish Slavery Network. Twelve states have similar legislation or ballot measures in progress.
“If I have to work I should get minimum wage for my labor,” said Moore.” “I should be taught financial literacy and how to be independent in the outside world.”