In 2018, Colorado was the first state to amend its constitution to abolish all forms of slavery and involuntary servitude—and did so without its prison system collapsing. However, the California Senate has refused to support a similar measure, arguing the state’s prisons would collapse and they’d have to pay prisoners minimum wage.
“Banning the work requirement in our prisons would undermine our rehabilitation programs and make the prisons more difficult to manage safely,” said Sen. Steve Glazer, according to The Associated Press.
Many incarcerated people would disagree.
“They say working jobs is good for us,” said San Quentin’s Patricio Gonzalez, who was stuck with a full-time kitchen job. “But it harms a lot of us because it prevents us from going to rehabilitative programs, which is a lot more important.”
Utah and Nebraska have also banned forced labor. Yet their prisons have continued to function without bankrupting their budgets, according to reporting by Prison Legal News. This was the other primary concern expressed by hesitant lawmakers in California.
“Regardless of how people feel about the criminal justice system, the ultimate outcome shouldn’t be slavery,” said Jumokie Emery, co-chair of Abolish Slavery Colorado.
According to reporting by Colorado Public Radio, Colorado avoided paying its incarcerated workers minimum wage by making work voluntary, per the amendment.
But the “voluntary” part is debatable, raising concerns as to whether such amendments are simply symbolic gestures that states can easily violate.
A class-action lawsuit filed earlier this year on behalf of incarcerated people in Colorado alleges the state violated its slavery ban by forcing them to work.
“There is no choice. This is a work camp basically. You have to have a job here,” said Harold Mortis, a member of the lawsuit.
Mortis declined work during the pandemic. As a result, he said he was threatened with loss of “good time”—time off a sentence for good behavior—and removal from the “incentive living program.”
Richard Lilgerose, another member of the lawsuit, refused kitchen work due to mental health struggles made worse by the pandemic. Consequently, he lost some good time credits and said he was threatened with loss of family visits.
“You know, we deserve a certain form of punishment, we messed up,” Lilgerose said. “But then you have another element, where you’re forced to work positions where you do not want to work… It’s horrible to be treated that way as a human being.”
Back in California, Gonzalez said he hopes his state will eventually amend its constitution to ban involuntary servitude for incarcerated people.
“I know that if they didn’t make me have a job, I would take as many rehabilitative programs as I could,” Gonzalez said. “I take programming very seriously.”